Friday, 16 January 2015

The Signature of All Things - a Review

Last Wednesday at noon I picked up a copy of ‘The Signature of All Things’, the book for discussion at my book club meeting last Thursday at noon. Imagine my horror when I discovered two things - a) it contained 580 pages and b) it was by the same author as ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, which I'd regarded as rather self-indulgent and not particularly enjoyable. ‘Oh, no’, I thought. ‘I’d better send my apologies and stay at home.’ 

Then I read the opening line. Alma Whitaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800. I was hooked by the end of the first page. 

Alma is a child of the New World, born in Philadelphia, USA. Four pages on, we step back to 1760 when Alma’s father Henry was born at Richmond in England. Henry was the son of an orchard man at Kew gardens. Later the imagined Henry meets Sir Joseph Banks, sails with Captain Cook and marries the Dutch woman Beatrix van Devender, daughter of a custodian of the Hortus botanical garden in Amsterdam. The scene is set for a novel embracing the grand themes of an exhilarating period of intellectual discovery about the natural world, culminating in the work of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. 

It’s lucky I’m a fast reader. Despite other commitments, I’d read the entire book by 11am next day and was ready for our discussion group at noon. 

It spoke to me on many levels. I could not believe all the parallels in the imagined life of Alma Whitaker and the real life of Margaret Flockton, a scientific botanical artist. Margaret is the focus of my next yet-to-be-published (non-fiction) book 'A Fragrant Memory'. Alma struggled to assert herself as a female, against both a domineering father and a world unfriendly to women of scientific bent. So did Margaret Flockton, born much later, in 1861. Alma was astounded by the botanical drawings of Ambrose Pike. Likewise, Margaret Flockton’s work at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney is superlative. Alma had strange links to Tahiti. So did Margaret Flockton. Romance was lacking for both Alma and Margaret. Alma had close connections to two women in her life – her adopted sister Prudence and the troubled friend Retta. Margaret had close connections to her two sisters. Late in life Alma found herself a dream job in a botanical garden. So did Margaret Flockton. Alma had 'a thing' about mosses, Margaret was fascinated by algae and lichen. The list goes on and on. 

Visionary historical novels like this, peopled with memorable characters, are a joy to read. An imaginative concept, backed by research, has generated a fascinating story which flowed effortlessly and is a wonderful example of good writing. At both the macro and micro level, even down to the little Tahitian dog Roger, this book is about the survival of the fittest, the need to struggle, adapt, overcome, and survive - the signature of all things. Congratulations, Elizabeth Gilbert.

Note - Contact Louise Wilson via her website or leave a comment below if you'd like to join the waiting list for 'A Fragrant Memory'.

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