War and Fossils

By Anna Mundow
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 23, 2009


By Rebecca Stott

Spiegel & Grau. 286 pp. $25

In her first novel, "Ghostwalk," which was set in 17th-century Cambridge and involved Sir Isaac Newton, Rebecca Stott established herself as a subtle writer who wears her scholarship lightly. (A professor of English literature at the University of East Anglia, Stott also wrote the biography "Darwin and the Barnacle.") Thanks to Stott's deftness and sly humor, "Ghostwalk" was as sprightly as it was enlightening. The same can be said of her latest novel, "The Coral Thief," although here the plot accelerates at a faster rate (this is the 19th century), and the skulduggery is more colorful (this is Paris).

"When at the age of twenty-one, I traveled to Paris from Edinburgh by mail coach, carrying in my luggage three rare fossils and the bone of a mammoth, I still believed time traveled in straight lines. It was July 1815, only a few weeks after Napoleon had fallen to the Allies at Waterloo." Thus our narrator, Daniel Connor, introduces both himself and his era. He is a familiar 19th-century character: the ambitious young anatomy student, son of a devout family, leaving home for the first time and eager to impress his new mentor in Paris.

But Daniel is not the novel's only traveler. Napoleon, too, is on a journey -- of exile, not discovery -- which Stott charts in a series of brief vignettes that interrupt the narrative like a melancholy recitative: "At dawn the Emperor appeared on deck in his famous gray greatcoat," she writes of the prisoner on the British ship bound for Saint Helena. "He spoke to no one, keeping his eyes fixed on the lighthouse on the isle of Ushant and the slowly receding coastline of France."

Indeed, all of Europe is in postwar flux with civilians and soldiers alike on the move and on the make. In Paris the Allies are busy erasing all traces of Napoleon's reign and carting off art treasures. Before Daniel reaches the city, however, he meets his fate in the luscious shape of Lucienne Bernard, a fellow passenger who steals his fossils and papers while he sleeps. "Desire was there from the beginning," he recalls. "But that's an easy explanation for why the boy on the mail coach became the boy of the labyrinths and salons and gambling houses, for how the anatomy student became a thief."

With consummate skill and compassion, Stott plunges Daniel the innocent into a serpentine plot that involves spies, philosophers, revolutionaries and scientists. Treasure may be at the heart of Stott's mystery, but fossils and corals are equally precious in this hybrid novel of action and ideas. Like Daniel, the reader emerges from "The Coral Thief" having had an adventure and an education.

Anna Mundow is a literary columnist for the Boston Globe and a contributor to the Irish Times.

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