This is a historical novel about Mary Anning, a young fossil hunter in early 19th century Britain. I quite enjoyed it, but it didn’t do anything special for me. It’s funny – although I studied history at university and have a lot of interest in it, I generally prefer contemporary fiction. I think it’s because I find that historical novels often rely too much on the history, rather than on being a great, well-told story. The author does a lot of research and has to throw it all into the book. This shouldn’t necessarily mar the book – it should enhance it. But somehow the novel becomes about the details of a period rather than anything more profound. Strip out the unfamiliar setting, the antique manners and customs, and you have a fairly plain story of a girl collecting fossils on the beach.
Yes, it was unfair that because of her class and gender Mary Anning didn’t get the credit she deserved. The novel also highlights very effectively the hard life for women in those days, going so quickly from being a young girl to a confirmed spinster for reasons completely out of their control. But none of this is really new information. The trajectory of the story ends up feeling quite predictable. I did like the characters and care about what happened, and the writing was good enough, but it’s not a book I’ll remember very long.
Maybe I shouldn’t criticise historical novels in general. I have enjoyed some of them immensely (see my review of The Color Purple for just one example). It’s not that being set in a historical period is a problem. It’s that what I want from reading is to be provoked to think about the world in new ways. If the book is dealing with old, familiar issues then it has to be exceedingly well-written or rise above the particulars and speak to something more universal. Some books do, but this one didn’t. I’d recommend it for passing a few hours quite pleasantly, but nothing more.