Tracy Chevalier: Remarkable Creatures (2009)

On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, Mary Anning learns that she has a unique gift: “the eye” to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious authorities on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. After struggling through cold storms, landslips, and other natural threats, her challenges only grow when she falls in love with an impossible man.

l often say I don’t like historical (genre) novels but I will not say this anymore. I may not pick them up frequently but when I do I often enjoy them. Even more so when they open a door to a world that fascinates me and of which I didn’t know a lot. Tracy Chevalier’s book Remarkable Creatures was exactly one of those books.

In the early 19th century the little working-class girl Mary Anning helps her family make a living with “curies” – curiosities – she finds on the beaches of Lyme Regis. Uneducated as she is, she doesn’t know a lot about fossils, she only knows that the rich people who come to stay at Lyme Regis give her money for her finds. Elizabeth Philpot who has moved to Lyme Regis with her two sisters is equally attracted by fossils. She is an unmarried woman who due to her unpleasing looks and the lack of money has no chance of ever finding a husband. When she meets Mary she is immediately aware that the girl has a gift. Where others see only stones and rubble, little Mary spots fossils. The two become friends and Elizabeth mentors the girl and helps her to sell her finds to a good price. When Mary makes a revolutionary discovery, the fossilized skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus, it is Elizabeth who fights for Mary’s right to be rewarded and acknowledged as the finder.

The book tells the life story of these two women in alternating first person narratives. It desribes their struggles, their failure at finding love and their fight for recognition. This is a time in which the idea of evolution, the fact that there once have been species that are now extinct, is thought to be blasphemous and heretic. And it’s even more problematic to acknowledge that women could contribute to science. Mary Anning’s discoveries are “remarkable” to some and shocking to many others.

This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded, was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all of the animals He created. If He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff.

I was completely captivated by this story. The descriptions are so well done. Tracy Chevalier has a gift to bring the past to life. I already noticed that when I read Girl With a Pearl Earring. The period detail seems extremely well done. I have always been fascinated by fossils and delighted when I found some but I never bothered to read much about them. I had never heard of Mary Anning before and loved to be introduced to this amazing woman and her story.

I expected something slightly different though. I thought this would be a novel about a friendship which it is to a certain extent only not the type I had in mind. I’m obviously used to modern-day friendships with the emphasis on discussion and soul-baring. There is none of this in this book. Their friendship is expressed in silent company, not conversation. More than anything else, these two women form a little support group. Both have not been treated kindly by society and could be called outcasts. Elizabeth maybe less than Mary but still to some extent as well. Both are trapped by their respective class and their gender and if it hadn’t been for the fossils and their attachment to each other, they would have lived sad and lonely lives.

The melancholy mood and the evocative descriptions of the setting, the beaches of Lyme Regis, the weather, the danger of being killed in a landslip fascinated me even more than the story of these two women. The cover of the book captures some of this very well. A lonely rather rough-looking beach and two figures completely absorbed by what they see.

I’ve read that others found the book to be flat or lacking. It wasn’t any of this for me. I liked it a great deal and would highly recommend it to those who like Tracy Chevalier’s books.

Have you read this or other books by Tracy Chevalier? Which is your favourite?

Here is the link to Tracy Chevalier’s blog and a video in which you can see the beaches and listen to her talk about the creation of the book and why she chose to tell this story. It’s quite fascinating.

The book is part of a readalong hosted by Emma (Book Around the Corner). Unfortunately the book didn’t work for her. You can find her impressions here.