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Review: In 'The Coral Thief' by Rebecca Stott, a world in flux plunges anatomy student into adventure

In her first novel, Ghostwalk, which was set in 17th century Cambridge and involved Sir Isaac Newton, Rebecca Stott established herself as a subtle writer who wears her scholarship lightly. (A professor of English literature at the University of East Anglia, Stott also wrote the biography Darwin and the Barnacle.) Thanks to her deftness and sly humor, Ghostwalk was as sprightly as it was enlightening. The same can be said of her new novel, The Coral Thief, although here the plot accelerates at a faster rate (this is the 19th century), and the skulduggery is more colorful (this is Paris).

"When at the age of twenty-one, I traveled to Paris from Edinburgh by mail coach, carrying in my luggage three rare fossils and the bone of a mammoth, I still believed time traveled in straight lines. It was July 1815, only a few weeks after Napoleon had fallen to the Allies at Waterloo." Thus our narrator, Daniel Connor, introduces himself and his era. He is a familiar 19th century character: the ambitious young anatomy student, son of a devout family, leaving home for the first time and eager to impress his new mentor in Paris.

But Daniel is not the novel's only traveler. Napoleon, too, is on a journey — of exile, not discovery — which Stott charts in a series of vignettes that interrupt the narrative like a melancholy recitative.

All of Europe is in postwar flux with civilians and soldiers alike on the move and on the make. Before Daniel reaches the city, however, he meets his fate in the luscious shape of Lucienne Bernard, a fellow passenger who steals his fossils and papers while he sleeps.

With consummate skill and compassion, Stott plunges Daniel the innocent into a serpentine plot that involves spies, philosophers, revolutionaries and scientists. Treasure may be at the heart of Stott's mystery, but fossils and corals are equally precious in this hybrid novel of action and ideas. Like Daniel, the reader emerges from The Coral Thief having had an adventure and an education.

The Coral Thief

By Rebecca Stott

Spiegel & Grau, 286 pages, $25

Review: In 'The Coral Thief' by Rebecca Stott, a world in flux plunges anatomy student into adventure 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 4:30am]
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