Rebecca is my tutor for the historical fiction module, so I’m glad I can be largely positive about this.
I got this book months ago but I’ve finally just had the chance to read something purely for pleasure: that means in English, a novel, and nothing to do with my modules. Who knew that studying literature and translation would mean that I barely get the chance to read for myself? Oh yeah, I did know that.
Daniel Connor is an anatomy and medicine student at Edinburgh University. He is sent by his tutor to post-revolutionary France, where Napoleon has fallen and the King has been returned to the throne. He starts a job under Professor Cuvier at the world-famous Jardin des Plantes, categorising species.
Upon arriving on the mail coach, Daniel realises the beautiful woman he met the night before has stolen his corals, manuscript and bones which were the references and gifts needed to start his job at the Jardin. He drifts around Paris with his newfound Scottish friend and fellow student Fin, unable to start work, and a bit lost.
But the mysterious woman hasn’t disappeared completely. This becomes a thriller as well as a historical novel, with spies, jewel heists and rings of thieves in hiding.
Time and place were beautifully executed. early 19th-century Paris felt alive in my mind. I really enjoyed the first part of the book – the month in which Daniel gets drunk and behaves like most other twenty-year-old students in Paris with nothing much to do. Absinthe, gambling, phantasmagoria. Stott did such a good job of setting it’s making me want to go back and edit my own fiction, which is how it should be.
It’s an incredibly interesting point in time to set a novel. Twenty years after the Revolution, just after Napoleon has been defeated after escaping from prison once more. Napoleon is on his way to the tiny rock which will be his ‘prison’ (a rather beautiful tropical island prison) for the rest of his life: Saint Helena. The ethos of the Revolution is crumbling all around them. No more liberté, egalité, fraternité, but no more Terror either. The lions are being pulled from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and given back to Rome. Everywhere, the European powers are descending on Paris and taking back what had been stolen from them: including the beautiful collection of fossils, corals and bones at the Jardin des Plantes.
Time was evoked beautifully, naturally and not too often. Paris- a seething metropolis where nobody is as they seems – seemed almost a third main character in the novel.
So why four starts instead of five? The plot felt a little weak at times. Case in point: the climax of the novel, a great jewel heist. The characters repeat time and time again how impossible it is to break into the Jardin’s Museum, how well-locked, how well-protected everything is. I was curious how they were going to figure out a way in. And in the end, I never found out. The other characters just kind of abseil from somewhere in the roof just like any first, tacky mental image you get when I say the words ‘Jewel Heist’. We also never really found out how Lucienne, the mysterious woman, manages to fake her own death to get away from Paris.
Jagot, the Parisian police-chief-cum-spymaster, really wants the diamond. This felt kind of cheap for a baddie, I thought there would be some deeper motivations at play than just wanting a diamond. Blackmail, extortion? Deep-seated lusts? No, dude wants to get rich. Also, he lets Daniel and Lucienne run around the city for months, although Lucienne is supposedly in hiding. Hmmm.
And now we come to character. Daniel doesn’t warrant being the ‘I’-narrator. He’s passive, dull, and I honestly couldn’t give you many adjectives to describe his character after a whole book. Which is a bit sad, because ‘I’-narrators give you the most insight into their personality. Naive? Biddable? Maybe these two. At times, he’s infuriatingly passive, and for someone who apparently adores botany and biology, he forgets about it all pretty quick. His mental monologues on corals, fossils and bones in the first half of the book don’t fit with his treatment of his job in the second half of the book- as just going through the motions until he can swan around Paris with his older girlfriend and drink absinthe after dark.
Whereas Daniel is flat and underdeveloped, Lucienne seems to have more character facets than seems plausible. She is a fallen aristocrat during the Revolution, whose life was saved in prison because another woman stepped up and was executed in her name (why? No idea). She dresses as a man half of the time, she is a thief, a coral enthusiast, a philosopher. Nobody seems to care that she is a woman alone, with no husband, no real home, no honest income. It felt too modern. Nobody struggles with that. She didn’t seem to have struggled being a fallen aristocratic female cross-dresser who began a sparkling career in thievery.