This article is part of our Holiday Reads 2013 series. Remarkable Creatures is Rosanna Ley’s recommendation. Quercus published her book, Bay of Secrets on May 9th, 2013. You can read our review of the book here.
This is a perfect holiday read for anyone who loves the Jurassic coast of Dorset as much as I do. The novel is set in Lyme Regis in the earlyish 1800s and the limelight of point of view is shared by the young, working-class girl Mary Anning and an educated but down at heel spinster Elizabeth Philpott. Both characters are real people with an interesting story to tell.
Mary Anning survived being struck by lightning as a baby and this event has given her ‘the eye,’ meaning that she can spot fossils she calls ‘curies’ on the beaches of Lyme Bay. When Elizabeth and her sisters move to Lyme, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mary and she too becomes passionate about walking on the beach and looking for treasure.
But Mary’s discoveries become larger and more dramatic and the creatures she digs up threaten the traditional and religious views of the time. Could it be that some creatures made by God have become extinct? And if so, how can this fit in with what is laid down in Genesis about Creation? Or is Mary guilty of somehow manufacturing these ‘remarkable creatures’ herself in a criminal attempt to win fame and financial gain?
Mary and Elizabeth live in a world where most women are powerless and men like to take the glory of discovery for their own. The two women fight that, but ultimately they also have to fight men’s influence on their friendship and for their own ability to survive. Today, Mary Anning is given rightful credit for her discoveries of dinosaur skeletons which have helped to teach us so much about evolution and extinction, but it was not always the case, as Chevalier shows us in this fascinating, compelling and accessible novel about these two women.
But the book is not just about the women and their discoveries. It is also about the stunning setting of Lyme Regis with its atmospheric Cobb (also made famous in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles) its rows of quirky seaside villas and cottages, and most of all its beaches with a sandy bay, a picturesque harbour and the history of the Blue Lias Cliffs where you can wander the beach, search for your own fossils and imagine yourself like Mary Anning, making all kinds of exciting discoveries!
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