I loved Rebecca Stott’s Ghostwalk, a highly literary suspense novel in which the past penetrates the present. I was especially impressed by the way Stott managed that chronological slippage, making it both elegant and spooky. So I’ve been eagerly awaiting The Coral Thief, and it lived up to my expectations.
Of course I’m a pre-sold audience for this one, which takes place entirely in the Paris of 1815, just as Napoleon is on his way to Saint Helena. Here, too, Stott is preoccupied with time, but it’s the long version — the years of the earth’s existence. The narrator, a young Scot named Daniel Connor, is in Paris to study natural history with Cuvier at the Jardin des Plantes. Cuvier’s view of nature is that of a fixed order, in which the species are rigidly separate. Connor, coming from a strict religious household in Edinburgh, is naturally inclined to this conservative view. However he falls among thieves and his predictable world shatters.
Stott brilliantly conjures up the dizzying disorder of a France in flux. The ethos of freewheeling scientific inquiry promoted under Napoleon is being shut down by the traditional alliance of Cross and Crown, bearing down to support the restoration of the Bourbons. The whiplash reversals of Revolution and Empire have produced not only social chaos but also a thriving criminal culture. Connor, on his voyage into Paris, is enchanted and robbed by a mysterious woman named Lucienne Bernard who turns out to be his Aeneas in the Parisian underworld. A cross-dressing savant, an aristocrat who survived the Terror, she seduces Connor both physically and intellectually.
What Stott does remarkably well is take the reader back in time using 21st century tools. The research is impeccable without being showy. If you care to, you can match up the police chief Jagot with the thief/detective Vidocq whom Balzac turned into his protean villain Vautrin. The climactic scenes of the novel take place (hello, Victor Hugo) in the miles of quarries that run beneath Paris. But the prose is lean and the pacing tight. Details are vivid but spare, as if to allow each scene to blossom according to the individual reader’s imagination. And the ideas — rumination about how the natural world came to be, foreshadowing Darwin’s theories — are constantly yet obliquely reinforced. Connor, musing on how he has changed in Paris, says “Soon I would become like one of those half-human creatures in Ovid, I thought, human skin transmuting into leather or claw or hoof.” Evolution turned backward. By this point we are so caught up in the dreamy possibilities of Paris, of science, of Lucienne’s gang of thieves, that we think, why not?