Deeply woven into the consciousness of its time, the story has a “slice of history” feel. The Coral Thief begins with a quote by Charles Darwin from his voyage of the Beagle. An obvious choice for a book that explores the fresh sprouts of a young theory of evolution. Even as Professor Cuvier disregards the doubters, Connor is drawn to the study of molluscs and tiny organisms and the possibility of an alternate version to his Biblical truth.
‘Imagine an arm,’ Ramon said, slightly drunk, stretching out his own arm. ‘According to the priests, human history starts out with Adam and Eve in the garden up here on the shoulder and reaches down to the tip of the finger – the present – where you are now. Here’s Herodotus near the shoulder and here’s Napoleon down towards the end of the index finger. But the real truth is that all human history can be contained on a single fingernail. All of this, all of this from the shoulder down to the fingernail here, is pre-human history. So now you have to look for Herodotus and Napoleon with a microscope. And us, well, where are we in all of that abyss of time and where is now? Time doesn’t stop for us. La marche.’
I had overheard fragments of conversation about transformism in the coffeehouses and taverns of Edinburgh, where the medical students talked politics. But Erasmus Darwin was mostly ridiculed by the students in Edinburgh; there was a whole set of jokes about whether we had descended from cabbages or oysters. (…) But Fin’s friends talked openly about transformism, and rationally, not speculatively, or apologetically, but as if the hypothesis were beyond question. They – the heretics and infidels – now fascinated me.
The atmosphere is charged with radical new beliefs and questions and Stott has captured this energy on paper. The politics of Lamarck’s theory of species transformation, the “dethroning” of man as one of the characters aptly puts it, its interpretation as a shift of power from the royals to the masses, is most intriguing. The book makes it plenty clear that politics was of no interest to Lamarck, whose curiosity only rested in science. But a thought cannot be contained in a bubble, and The Coral Thief shows us this and other waves of consequence that stirred the sentiments of the Parisians.
The book neither criticizes nor picks sides and Connor’s perspective of an alarmed outsider works rather well, as you are led through glimpses of the reign of terror, of Bastille and finally Napoleon’s abdication, the resilience of a city swarmed with foreign troupes, a shocked city that still whispers of Napoleon’s return. Stott’s lyrical writing amplifies the drama, certainly, but it is not maudlin.
Connor’s story is interspersed with fleeting moments from Napoleon’s point of view that in my view it could have done without. Without giving away the plot, I must add, the mystery itself is not entirely stable in its construction either. But these are minor grievances in a magical whole. If you are a stickler for well researched stories and like history, all things French, thought provoking fiction (not a good old carefree airport read) and don’t mind the occasional clumsy narrator, do pick up The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott.