Another historical fiction novel for you this week, this time Rebecca Stott’s The Coral Thief. Set in Paris in 1815, just after the expulsion of Bonaparte but before the status quo had been restored, it follows the adventures of a highly ambitious medical student named Daniel Conner as he undertakes a placement in the Jardin des Plantes. Unfortunately for him, as he is about to enter Paris, he encounters the stunning and mysterious Lucienne Bernard, who steals the letters of note and rare fossils he is carrying to ensure his entrance into the Jardin goes well. Unable to take up his placement until he has recovered the stolen artefacts, he is quickly consumed by the underworld of Paris.
Above everything else this is the coming-of-age story of a late-blooming young man, whose world is turned upside down by the still-lingering philosophical developments of Revolutionary-era Paris. It is portrayed in a neat and charming style,though some of the philosophical discussions, while necessary to illustrate the protagonist’s changing mindset, are a bit too transparently dropped in. Similarly, Stott has obviously researched long and hard, and occasionally the historical facts are too close to the surface and feels like it’s interfering with the story. The pacing, on the other hand, is great, and ratchets up to a really gripping climax. I couldn’t put it down for the last hundred-or-so pages and found the epilogue particularly satisfying.
While the book evokes the spirit and vigour of post-Revolution Era Paris, it is significant that in writing this review I could not remember a single character’s name beyond the elusive Lucienne Bernard, whose character is the pivot for the whole book. It is like watching the story of someone else’s life unfolding through the eyes of the slightly spineless protagonist, Daniel Conner. Whether or not this is intentional, it makes for a realistic portrayal of that kind of young love where the other person is everything.
The Coral Thief is good, solid bedtime reading for fans of historical fiction, and definitely gripping enough to keep you page-turning!