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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Society On The Brink Of Change

Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures is the story of Mary Anning, who, as a girl and later as a young woman, discovered fossils in the cliffs near Lyme Regis, that revolutionised our understanding of the development of life on this planet and greatly accelerated the process by which we moved from a Bible-centred account of the pre-history of the world to a scientific one. She was a girl from a poor family and the world of fossils on which she made such an impact was entirely dominated by middle-class men, many of them Anglican clergymen. So her contribution was only partially acknowledged and she struggled to survive financially.

Mary's story is told by Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-aged spinster of keen intelligence but not endowed with either money or the kind of looks that might recommend her to a man in search of a wife. Independent, courageous and spirited, she is in many ways a heroine who might have stepped out of the pages of one of Jane Austen's books, except that Elizabeth is well aware that in real life the kind of ending that Jane Austen provided was not a possibility.

The novel is narrated in both Elizabeth's and Mary's voices and, as always, with Tracy Chevalier, there is some delightful observation of human nature. Here's Elizabeth describing Mary and and then going on to muse about the way people impose themselves upon the world.

"Mary Anning leads with her eyes. That was clear even the first time we met, when she was but a girl. Her eyes are button brown, and bright, and she has a fossil hunter’s tendency always to be looking for something, even when on the street or in a house where there is no possibility of finding anything of interest. It makes her appear vigorous, even when she is still. I have been told by my sisters that I too glance about rather than hold a steady gaze, yet they do not mean it as a compliment as I do with Mary.

I have long noted that people tend to lead with one particular feature, a part of the face or body. My brother, John, for instance, leads with his eyebrows. It is not just that they form prominent tufts above his eyes, but they are the part of his face that moves the most, tracing the course of his thoughts as his brow furrows and clears. He is the second eldest of the five Philpot siblings, and the only son, which made him responsible for four sisters after our parents’ death. Such circumstances will move anyone’s eyebrows, though even as a boy he was serious.

My youngest sister, Margaret, leads with her hands. Though small, their fingers are proportionately long and elegant and she plays the piano better than the rest of us. She is given to waving her hands about as she dances, and when she sleeps she throws her arms above her head, even when the room is cold."

It's a quiet book. There are no really great dramas, no startling twists and turns. But the characterization, the atmosphere and the emotional intensity of the characters carry the narrative along, painting an intriguing and absorbing portrait of a society on the brink of change.