Henry Whittaker is a ‘useful little fingerstink’. Born to a gifted Kew gardener in the reign of George III, his ambition and determination drive him across the world and to the heady heights of Philadelphia society, reinventing himself as one of America’s richest men. His daughter Alma is a marvel: intellectually gifted and impeccably educated, if socially awkward. The novel is a majestic epic weaving historical facts into a fictional tapestry as she struggles to understand the mechanisms of creation and alteration in the age of Darwin.
There’s so much to like here – the characters are vivid and likeable (even confrontational Henry), not to mention believably human. I found the pages whizzed by in spite of an arguably slow narrative – Alma studies mosses and rarely leaves the Philadelphia estate she was born on, so this in an epic on an almost geological scale (or as Alma herself would say: it takes place in Moss Time, somewhere between Human Time and Geological Time). However, I loved that her adventures only really start in her 50s, and that she is a vital force to the very end. I also liked her utterly rational approach to the world, and her slow recognition that the mystical was a mystery she could never fathom.
My only reservation, really, is the almost surreal interlude in Tahiti, about which perhaps the less said the better. I will have to reflect a little more before I can make my mind up about it.
In execution, I stand by earlier comments – this is very much a narrated tale; we watch Henry and Alma, rather than seeing through their eyes for at least the first half of the novel – but I found myself sucked in nevertheless. The narration is playful and the prose inviting. Overall, a beautiful tale of one woman’s efforts to understand humanity through the natural world.