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Wednesday, April 28, 2010


The Coral Thief, by Rebecca Stott
Selkirk's Island by Diana Souhami

Reading was not entirely neglected while I had my head down with the last lap of Tupaia.  The first book, Rebecca Stott's Coral Thief was sent to me by good friend Martin Evans, of Cambridge, England.  He had heard the first episode of its reading on the BBC Radio 4, and was intrigued enough to want to share it with me.  A quick google confirmed that young Stott's book is the talk of England, and the setting is certainly unusual enough to trigger one's interest. 

In 1815, a few weeks after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Daniel Connor, a young and extraordinarily naive student, is travelling to Paris, to work as one of the assistants of the great Prof. Cuvier.  While on the stagecoach, he is beguiled by a gypsylike female with a baby who defeats dragons (or so the proud mum claims).  He wakes from a dreamlike stupor to find mother and child gone, along with his bag with its priceless collection of coral.  Scared to approach Cuvier without the coral and letters of introduction, Daniel rents a garret and becomes a Bohemian.  The gypsy reappears (of course) and the plot thickens, trailing through a rather marvellous scene in a convent garden where the fate of the decapitated upper class corpses trundled from the guillotine is revealed, to a crashing finale in a set of catacombs I had never heard of before.

There is an opera-like cast of characters; in fact, the whole book is rather like an opera.  Puccini, undoubtedly, would have loved it.  I found the fine research overwhelmed the plot, and it was that, rather than the story and characters, that kept me turning the pages.  But it was definitely worth reading -- for the child who conquered dragons.  While I found the mother very hard to fathom, the daughter is a marvellous creation.

Diana Souhami's Selkirk's Island was loaned to me by a Wellington friend, who declared that I had to read it, being the author of Island of the Lost.  In 1704 Alexander Selkirk was marooned on an uninhabited island in the small Juan Fernandez group, and was not rescued until 1709.  As we all know, he was the inspiration for Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, probably the first novel, and an inspiration even now.  (Certainly for Island of the Lost.)

This is a wonderful book.  I have never read anything quite like it.  The characters, all historically real, leap off the pages; Souhami has performed a miracle in bringing the era to life.  It may the most vivid evocation of existence at sea at the time I have ever read. No maritime historian, the writer is wise enough not to let the ships dominate (as she confesses, she doesn't even know them well enough to call them "she"), but she certainly has a grip on life on board, and the nature of seamen.  Pirate enthusiasts will love this book, but I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone.

I notice both books were published in London by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.  They are to be heartily congratulated at finding such original talent.

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