This is a beautifully written story, it speaks profoundly, and I know that I am going to go on thinking about it for a very long time.
It begins in the middle of the eighteenth century, with a girl child who lives on the streets. She and her brother had only their wits to live on, stealing what ever they could to survive from one day to the next. I was captivated by this child, by her life and her spirit, by her utter reality, before I even knew her name. And I knew that I had to follow her story before I understood why.
The day came when she was caught in an audacious act of thievery; and she was taken to an institution for destitute and friendless children. She was heartbroken to be separated from her brother; she knew that he had been seized by what she would later learn was a press-gang, but she couldn’t tell what was his name, what was her name, what was the story of her life.
She was given the name Dawnay Price, for the man who had taken her from the streets, the man she would come to know as her ‘benefactor’. Because it was her great good fortune to have been taken to an enlightened institution, where it was believed that even an impoverished, uneducated, unwanted orphan could be raised to a place in the world.
As Dawnay was raised she developed a fierce intelligence, a burning curiosity about the world and everything in it, and a passion to learn and discover everything she could. She had a calling to be a natural philosopher – and the belief that she could be just that.
It didn’t occur to her that she couldn’t – because she was a girl, because she had no means – because she hadn’t been raised in a family, in a world, that said she couldn’t. That was wonderful, and Dawnay’s voice was to real and so engaging. It reflected her intelligence, her passion and her scientific outlook on life.
She has the good fortune to meet people what are able to help her, and the even greater fortune that they are open-minded enough to give her a chance and to be won over by the wonderfully persuasive way she argues her case. Dawnay wins wonderful chances, to study, and to travel so that she can discover more and theorise more about the world around her. She sees wonderful things, she has remarkable experiences, and she continues to blaze a trail, never accepting that she should be restricted in her quest for knowledge and understanding.
In time she formed some very advanced – and very controversial theories about the world, about how it came to be, and about how it came to be what it was.
I was utterly captivated by Dawany, by her story, by her experiences. She was – they were – so utterly real, and I was infected by her life and her spirit. She reminded me how marvellous it is to be alive in the world, to travel, to learn, to experience. The world that she moved through, the people that she met, the things that she experienced, were every bit as vivid, every bit as alive as she was. I was smitten and I turned that pages very quickly, because I was so eager to now how the story would play out.
I appreciated the wonderful depth and breadth of research that underpinned everything; it was lightly worn but it was clearly there, and I couldn’t doubt for a minute that the author loved everything that she learned and everything that she wrote about. She told her story so very well, and she wrote beautifully. There were evocative descriptions and tumbling lists that captured Dawnay’s interest in the world, there was cool, clear storytelling that reflected her scientific outlook, and there were so many ideas, so many lovely details, to consider.
There was drama, there was humour, there was tragedy – everything that a life story should have.
It might be said that Dawnay was lucky, and yes she was, but to some degree she made her own luck. History is full of stories of women who stepped outside the confines of the society and the situation they were born into. She did have setbacks too.
I noticed similarities in theme between this book and Rebecca Mascull’s first novel – The Visitors – but I appreciated that they were different in so any ways. I’m inclined to say that the first book was tilted more towards the heart and this one was tilted more towards the head; I loved both, for the same and for different reasons.
A love story does evolve in the latter part of the book; it’s as unconventional as its heroine, and that felt right. The events and the emotions of the closing chapters were unexpected but utterly right.
I know that there are any more things to be said about this book; and I’m sure that there were things that passed me by because I was so caught up with Dawnay and her experiences.
But I’ll just say one more thing – and that’s that I loved the heart and soul of this book.