Coral Thief Reviews – Selected Full Reviews


Peter Forbes in The Independent
Friday, 8 January 2010

Science has been invading literature. In fiction, Daniel Kehlmann’s rendition of Humboldt’s South American expedition, magical-realist style, in Measuring the World caused a stir; in biography, Richard Holmes admitted Humphry Davy to the Romantic pantheon in The Age of Wonder, and in poetry, Ruth Padel has given us Darwin’s life in verse.

Fiction, especially, is raiding science for its rich trove of stories. Reimaginings of these narratives can be the raison d’être of a novel or the backdrop of a quite different story. Giles Foden’s and Tracey Chevalier’s recent novels both found brilliant données in science and in March we are promised Ian McEwan’s global warming novel, Solar.

Rebecca Stott is uniquely poised between the worlds of science and fiction. Affiliated to the department of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge and a professor of creative writing at UEA, she has published both science non-fiction (Darwin and the Barnacle) and fiction (Ghostwalk), before the novel in question.

The Coral Thief is a fast-paced thriller set in the turmoil of France in 1815, with the memory of the Terror still strong and many people masquerading under aliases, “scavenging, picking over the remains of Napoleon’s treasures”. Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt was a scientific landmark but, in the wars, a great deal of this “loot” changed hands in dubious circumstances.

Ideas of natural evolution, known as transformism, were more prevalent in France than England at the time, with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck the chief advocate. For many in those post-revolutionary and post-Napoleonic times, the fixity of species, as upheld by Baron Cuvier, was a bulwark, alongside dogmatic Christianity and the sanctity of the social order. To question it was to be damned as a seditious revolutionary and atheist in the way that, in America now, a belief in anthropogenic global warming attracts the smear “communist” from the ultra-right.

The protagonist, Daniel, a young zoologist from Derbyshire, educated in Edinburgh and seeking enlightenment, is at first shocked by the impiety of those savants who dare question the account of creation in the Book of Genesis. But as he is swept up in a dangerous love affair, these wild notions – of one creature becoming another, of fossilised sea creatures thrown high up inside mountains by aeons of geological time – begin to work on him.

Stott identifies with the ‘infidels’ struggling to survive in Paris as reactionary forces in Europe try to regain control of the continent. Science and life seamlessly intertwine in a wholly natural way as the characters pursue both personal fulfilment and an understanding of the bigger picture.

Clare Clark in The Guardian
6 February, 2010

The Coral Thief opens in France on a hot July night in 1815. Daniel Connor, a naïve anatomy student from Edinburgh, is travelling to Paris to work under the renowned Professor Cuvier at the Jardin des Plantes, assisting in Cuvier’s colossal project to catalogue all the known species of the world. He can hardly wait to begin. Under Napoleon Paris’s professors had been granted unprecedented authority, freedom and money in their quest for knowledge: the city’s scientific institutions are crammed with treasures plundered by the emperor as he swept through Europe. In Paris Daniel means, like Napoleon himself, to achieve glory not through the advantages of birth but on his own intellectual merits.

But Napoleon has just been defeated and captured at Waterloo. The imperial city has become a military encampment for the Allied forces and its looted riches are being reclaimed, by fair means and foul. The king is not yet restored. Rumours persist that Napoleon’s armies wait in the quarries beneath the city, ready to mount their counter-attack.

Before he reaches the city, Daniel encounters a mysterious woman whose revolutionary theories about the origins of the earth shock and thrill him. When he discovers that she has absconded, taking his rare specimens and all his papers, he is forced to choose between seeking the help of ex-thief Jagot, now Paris’s head of police, or attempting to recover his possessions himself. His choice leads him into a passionate love affair and a criminal underworld in which he is hopelessly out of his depth.

At first sight The Coral Thief is an old-fashioned romantic thriller, complete with elaborate disguises, underground labyrinths and a kidnapped child. However, the true labyrinth at the heart of this novel is to be found in its exploration of scientific ideas. Stott is a meticulous historian and most of the peripheral characters are based on real people. The ideological debates are also very much of the time, in particular the emerging, and profoundly heretical, theories of transmutation and evolution, hypotheses which took as their proof the slow and steady growth of coral reefs, impossible in the 2,000 Biblical years of Earth’s history. These, more than any other scientific disputes of the time, preoccupied post-­revolutionary France, just as they plainly preoccupy Stott. Her fascination is infectious, and she rises to the challenge of bringing complex hypotheses engagingly to life. She conjures the atmosphere of a city seething with ideas, half-wild with the madness of looming disaster. Interspersed with the main narrative are passages detailing the slow voyage of Napoleon towards St Helena and death: the counterpoint underscores not only the collapse of empire but the ultimate irrelevance of individuals, however all-powerful, in the great sweep of scientific time.

It is disappointing, then, that Stott’s dramatisations of character are less successful. A frustratingly passive protagonist, Connor makes for a bloodless hero; even when he declares himself madly in love there is little heat in him. While he remains two-dimensional, Lucienne, his thief lover, has more facets than seems quite credible. A countess blessed to escape the guillotine, she is also a brilliant scientist, a master of disguise, a virtuoso lock-picker and a breathtaking beauty – and yet she too somehow eludes the reader. The result is a book of two parts: an enthralling exploration of revolutionary science in post-revolutionary Paris, and a thriller that never quite gets off the ground.

Boyd Tonkin in The Independent,
Friday 10th November 2010

As Gillian Beer showed in Darwin’s Plots, the narrative of evolution and the evolution of narrative went hand in hand in Britain from the early days of “natural selection”.

Recent writers, Ruth Padel to Tracy Chevalier, have continued to dig rich factual fictions out of science’s records. Rebecca Stott goes down a separate path.

Keenly researched, lovingly decorated, brimming with ideas but never short on character or charm, her novel takes as its focus not Darwin but his French predecessors.

In Paris in 1815, young medic Daniel enters the scholarly and political ferment around Cuvier and his colleagues. Proving her case that time can make “a web or a net or a branching tree”, Stott traces and peoples one less familiar line in the genealogy of great ideas.