Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
I picked this book up at the Lyme Regis Museum, which happens to be situated where the novel’s joint heroine – the 19th century fossil hunter Mary Anning – once lived. The story is first-person, but switches between two perspectives: Mary, a Lyme Regis native and the daughter of a cabinet maker, and Elizabeth Philpot, an older and more educated woman who has moved from London. Forming a friendship based on their fascination with fossils, which are plentiful on the area’s coastline, Mary and Elizabeth deal with such issues as the discovery of strange fossil animals and how they fit in with existing religious and scientific views – as well as the problems of having a passion seen as inappropriate for a woman.
For most of the book, it’s hard to determine exactly what the plot is: we’re really just following Mary and Elizabeth through various events without seeming to build toward anything. It’s only quite late on that the story comes to a recognisable “lowest point” at the end of the second act, and a climax where the heroines set out to achieve a set goal. However, given that this is a fictionalised retelling of the lives of real people, it’s understandable that the story would be laid out this way, and since the characters and events are so interesting, it doesn’t make the whole thing any less readable.
The atmosphere of both the place and the time are captured perfectly, including the different values – it’s made painfully clear how hard it was to be a woman in a man’s world at the beginning of the 19th century. Mary and Elizabeth are portrayed really well, fully fleshed out; they both have plenty more in their lives besides fossil hunting (and, indeed, each other), as well as definite flaws, which particularly come into play at the unfortunate moment when a man happens to come between them.
One slight problem I found with the writing – which otherwise has perfectly believable dialogue for the era – was with Mary’s sections. She’s given a style of prose that reflects her background, saying things like “Mam”, and “were” instead of “was”. There are occasional moments, however, where she drops this and sounds more like Elizabeth: it only lasts for a sentence at a time, but it’s a little distracting.
I may be a bit biased towards Remarkable Creatures due to the subject matter, but it is a really great book with a compelling relationship between two interesting characters at its heart; it takes a setting with multiple opportunities for conflict, and makes use of them all effectively. Rating: 4/5.