Joan Thomas and Jane Urquhart have each written novels whose characters play out their lives on the shoreline. Yet each has protagonists who turn their backs to the water and, facing inland, dig into the past. Thomas literally, Urquhart figuratively.
Curiosity is largely the fictionalized history of the fossil collector and paleontologist Mary Anning, a carpenter’s daughter in Lyme Regis struggling to support her mother and sister who, during the four decades before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, unearthed the first examples of several large dinosaurs of the Jurassic period. It is also the story of Henry De la Beche, a gentleman plantation owner, a slave owner, artist and geologist raised in Jamaica and now living on the Dorset coast. De la Beche created the famous watercolour Duria Antiquitor, a more ancient Dorsetshire (1830). It is a drawing based on Anning’s discoveries and it graces the cover of the novel. As Thomas says in her author’s note,
I wrote Curiosity not as a historical argument regarding his relationship with Mary Anning, but as an attempt to imagine what such a romance, so impossible and so full of possibility, would have meant to both of them.
That story is divided into three books. The first alternates between Mary’s and Henry’s youth, outlining their social advantages and foibles (his mostly) and social disadvantages and oddities (hers), until their shared enthusiasm for fossils brings them together along the Dorset shore. In Book II their lives intersect and diverge as each follows the fossils while struggling against distinctly differing social solidifications. In fact, a central motif of this novel is sedimentation. Layered down over countless ages, the earth holds fossils in place, only releasing them when raging storms violently undermine its hold and give way, creating access, and from access, collection, study and knowledge. So too social structures and conventions in impenetrable layers hold the characters to preordained roles and ideas established over time that impede their ability to break free or think differently about the nature of time, held as they are by the biblical story of Genesis, social class, gender roles, or slavery.
As Book III begins, Mary is predictably abraded by these impenetrable social conventions of thought as she continues to unearth, document, and sell her fossil finds. Published credit is given to those who purchase the fossils from her and not to Mary as their discoverer. She is not able to attend the male-only meeting of the Geological Society in London as a full dinosaur skeleton she has found is unveiled. Mary finds herself unable to join socially with what amount to her male colleagues, nor does she find comfort in her own class, where her autodidactic studies and frequent open air discussions with gentlemen scholars have separated her from her own neighbours.
Courtesies from Miss Philpot raised her in society. Courtesies from Mr. De la Beche dragged her into the mud.
Against these social and scholarly frustrations and excitements, and in the midst of all the historical details of this rich era of Jurassic discovery, Thomas deeply grounds the story in the lives of Mary and Henry. Chapter by chapter, she alternates the narrative point of view between the pair, fully inhabiting each character and richly revealing their inner lives, unspoken emotions, and yearnings towards each other. The novel ends by pulling back from their unrequited love story and offering us a vista of the entire region and the ways, in this particular place and historical moment, that the focus on fossil excavations served to revise so completely our view of the world.
Mary Anning might be quick to agree with the narrator of Sanctuary Line that
that what appears to be unknowable is merely that which has not yet been thoroughly examined. Sanctuary Line is a contemporary novel narrated in the first person by Liz Crane, an entomologist specializing in Monarch butterflies. She occasionally disconcerts by seeming to speak directly to the reader. The reason eventually becomes clear.
Liz has moved alone to her mother’s family home, the Butler house, on what was, until the most recent generation, a Loyalist orchard farm on the north shore of Lake Erie. Subdivisions now surround the house, reinforcing a feeling of how much has changed and how much has been lost. It is the place where she spent all her summers growing up, playing with her cousins as the work in the orchards, accomplished by Mexican migrant workers, took place around her. It is a place integral to shaping her very being, but also a place that we feel has been very disappointing. Although there are male cousins living their lives elsewhere, and her mother is nearby in a seniors complex, the narrator presents very much as the last keeper of the family flame. There is not so much an urgency to record the past as a need to work with the details of her own story and her family history in order to develop a new understanding of how one has affected the other. It is ultimately a story of lost innocence and a revisitation of events in order to understand them better from an adult perspective. This is not a happy exercise, she observes:
memory is rarely a friend to anyone. Always attended by transience and loss, often by anguish.
Because of the first-person narration, and the fact that she never refers to herself by name, we quickly lose our separation from Liz as a named character and inhabit her mind, moving with her through time and place as she maintains a constant observational monologue about her own and her ancestral past. But it is a purposefully limited narration. We become aware that pivotal events that transpired in the past changed the family dynamic. A fragile tension develops as we wait for the details to unfold.
Urquhart writes calmly, wistfully, inevitably, with a delicate lyricism and a distant focal point. The events of youth are revisited but without immediacy. Emotions are remembered, but not felt anew, as Liz spins the threads of her own story with the family story and with inevitable reflections about Monarch butterflies that, like the farm workers, also winter in Mexico and summer along the shores of Lake Erie, living a precarious existence. Liz has also found life precarious. In the very first chapter she mentions the loss of a childhood friend Teo, the son of one of the Mexican migrant workers, and the recent loss of her cousin Mandy in Afghanistan, as well as the disappearance of her Uncle Stanley. She circles back again and again, adding pieces to these stories and her own, building up a picture of the family history across generations. Urquhart has written a quiet and profound narrative of the nuances of grief as idealized worlds collapse.