Monday, October 03, 2016

York's Naturalist

The Naturalist / Alissa York
Toronto: RandomHouse Canada, c2016.
304 p.

The appeal of Alissa York's writing for me is rooted in her ability to evoke a setting, to describe flora and fauna so that you can feel it in all your senses, whether that's in urban Toronto, as in her last book Fauna, or in this book in which she takes us to the shores of the Amazon in 1867 with a naturalist expedition.

There are rivers, jungles that close around you, spiny fish that can injure, birdsound, heat, sun, stars, breezes over a hammock, and a night darkness so profound you can see nothing at all. And that's just a start.

Opening in Philadelphia, the book introduces us to naturalist Walter Ash, and his new wife Iris. They are planning to travel back to the Amazon on a journey to gather specimens for their dream of a exhibit back home. York really draws out the fact that most of these 19th century naturalists were specimen collectors, killing many animals rather than being conservation minded. It is quite horrifying at times!

Fate intervenes, however, and it turns out that Walter's son Paul must leave his museum job to accompany Iris and her companion, a young Quaker woman, Rachel, in the expedition which Iris is determined to carry out. 

It's particularly difficult for Paul, as he was brought back to Philadelphia as a young boy by his father when his mother died -- and her family is still waiting for him to return. They welcome him immediately, but he must struggle with his memories and his long-buried resentments at his father, as he dreams in the presence of his aunt and niece & nephew. 

Iris, an artist, spends her time drawing specimens but seems essentially unaffected by her new and wondrous surroundings. Rachel, on the other hand, takes to it immediately. She opens up and is truly present in what they are doing, in where they are located. She's fascinated by the landscape, the animal life, and the people she meets. She and Paul have a bit of a connection, but it's not a mawkish, romantic one -- she has her own journey to take.

The characters are interesting in this novel, but the real focus in on the sciencey bits. The information on the habits and practices of scientific collectors in this era, the descriptions of the wildlife, the Latin names, and so on, are really important to this book. If you like this kind of thing you'll find this novel a great reading experience. If you need something fast-moving with lots of character drama, this probably won't be so engaging. I personally love it, and found this book a good read, although I do think her last book, Fauna, felt more organic and a little bit more accessible with its contemporary urban setting.

But if you like historical novels that are a bit dreamy, very sensory and full of science, I recommend this one.


Further Reading:

Andrea Barrett's Voyage of the Narwhal follows another 19th C. expedition, but this time to the other ends of the earth -- to the Arctic. It has the same historical document feel in its style, though, and also relies heavily on beautiful writing and lots of scientific content. There are women featured in the storyline, and homebase is in Philadelphia too!


  1. You really nailed how sensory York's writing is. Based on everything about this book, I should have love it more than I did, but I think it was a matter of my expectations. I also think the Portugese phrases got in my way a bit. I'm a reader who likes to read every word, and I couldn't seem to make myself just skim over these phrases. They pulled me out of the story every time.
    Lovely review! And I agree with your feelings about Fauna. I'm looking forward to reading more of her books!

    1. That's too bad - I think liberal use of another language in a book is like subtitles in a movie - either you love them or you don't!

  2. The cover is wonderful, and the content sounds very engaging. Wonderful review, again, which is what I expect from you. This truly sounds like my kind of book. Fauna also sounds quite interesting!

    1. It's a gorgeous cover. I really like scientific expedition books so this one was enjoyable for me.

  3. Although I thought Fauna was gorgeous, I don't think The Naturalist is for me. The cover is to-die-for, though!

    1. This is both similar and very different to Fauna - I can see how not everyone will connect with it. I'm looking forward to what she does next!

  4. I didn't fall into this one straightaway when I first borrowed it from the library when it was new, but I think it was just poor timing for me, because I have loved everything else she's written.

    BTW, have you read Leslie Marmon Silko's Gardens in the Dunes? I was reading it when I picked up this book and there were just enough similarities to make me want to read them separately (loved GitD but it is a long book which takes some time).

    1. Sometimes timing is all important. There are a few books I had to go back to months after I first tried them.

      I have not read Gardens in the Dunes -- although I've had most of Silko books on my TBR for longer than I can recall now. I keep waiting for some perfect long stretch of free time to pick up all those long reads I've been meaning to read...


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