The burglars of Paris

Bookhounders may remember that a long time ago I reviewed a local author, Rebecca Stott's Cambridge-set book Ghostwalk. There was much that I enjoyed about the book, but ultimately the sheer daftness of the story outdid its merits, and my review was more negative than positive. Spotting Stott's well-reviewed more recent novel The coral thief, I decided to give her another go, and am very pleased that I did as Coral thief was a smashing read.

What I loved about Ghostwalk was Stott's sense of place, she brought Cambridge, especially historical Cambridge, glowingly to life. She succeeds even better, I believe, with early nineteenth century Paris. It is 1815, Napoleon is en route to exile in St. Helena, and Daniel Connor, a young up-and-coming medical student from Edinburgh arrives in Paris with a load of fossils, and a letter of introduction from his Edinburgh professor to Georges Cuvier in Paris. Cuvier was one of the foremost naturalists of his day in the vanguard of those who were arguing that creationism made no sense; he was one of many who would pave the way for Charles Darwin's work later in the century. (It should be no surprise that among Stott's most recent books is a factual account of the run-up to the theory of natural selection Darwin's ghosts - well worth a read I would think).

En route to Paris Connor meets a femme fatale, Lucienne Bernard, a woman who, much to his astonishment, is knowledgeable about evolution, and passionate about the history of time and creation. Unfortunately she also turns out to be a thief, and steals Connor's precious fossil collection. Connor goes in pursuit of the mysterious woman, and crosses swords with Jagot, head of the Surete and a reformed(?) criminal.

I loved this novel. It's a very clever piece of writing that can be read in two ways. On the surface it's a scintillating romance / adventure; but there's a deeper literary side to the novel with its musings on time and change that reminded me in some ways of one of my favourite non-fiction books Homo Britannicus. Change is everywhere in The coral thief from the changes imposed by geology and evolution to the transformation of Bernard from condemned aristocrat to thief to woman on the run.

Downsides? Characterisation could have been better. Connor himself comes across as a paper-thin character. And although it was interesting, I didn't understand the sections relating to Napoleon. They were fascinating, but didn't seem to bear any relationship to the book as a whole. Cuvier seems to have been plotted as the mini-villain of the place, and this seems to sit uneasily with the truth about Cuvier, and how Stott has written about him elsewhere.

But these are all actually fairly minor quibbles. It's a gloriously enjoyable book, and the brooding presence of a Paris still in the shadow of the Revolution, and not sure where it's going to go next, is a vital component in this atmospheric volume. Highly recommended.


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