The Coral Thief, by Rebecca Stott


Having been unimpressed by Rebecca Stott’s first novel Ghostwalk, I picked up her second, The Coral Thief, with low expectations.  However I was pleasantly surprised to find it was a great deal better, with some fine writing.  Set in 1815, shortly after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, a young English student, Daniel Connor travels to a Paris occupied by the allies to work for Georges Cuvier at the Jardin des Plantes in order to facilitate his scientific career.  He has been entrusted with a manuscript, precious pieces of coral and a mammoth bone, but after he falls asleep in the coach approaching the city he finds a woman he has been talking to has disappeared taking the objects, along with his letter of recommendation and his notebooks, with her.  He reports the theft to police commissioner Henri Jagot at the Sûreté, a thief-turned-policeman modelled on Eugène François Vidocq, who recognises his description of the thief.  Leaving, Daniel to his surprise finds himself under surveillance.  Then the woman, Lucienne Bernard, turns up beside him in the Louvre and he finds himself entranced by her.  She promises to return his stolen items and from there he becomes increasingly involved in her nefarious activities and they become lovers, until he finds he has agreed to be her accomplice in a daring jewel heist at the Jardin.

While an improvement on Ghostwalk, Stott still has a problem with her characters.  Straight-laced ambitious Daniel is initially devastated at the theft of his possessions, to the extent of thinking he will have to return to England in disgrace, yet he easily becomes seduced into Paris’s tough bohemian drinking culture and suddenly isn’t too bothered about his career.  Three months later, most of the artefacts having been returned, he is top assistant to Cuvier.  Knowing he is being shadowed by the police he recklessly visits Lucienne’s hiding place, and doesn’t seem puzzled why a raid does not immediately follow.  Daniel evolves as a character through his underworld associations, but it is a stretch to believe he would willingly risk all he had worked for through love of Lucienne.

Lucienne’s motivation is even less credible.  She is in danger in Paris, stalked by the wily Jagot, but doesn’t leave even though by staying she puts her beloved daughter at risk.  In delaying she becomes involved in a robbery plot fraught with difficulties when she could have been comfortably off in her Italian villa with her books and natural history collection.  She has much to lose by staying in Paris, nothing to gain, certainly not a life with Daniel – she stays because the plot demands it.  Anyway, Lucienne seems more of the twenty-first century than of the early nineteenth in her attitudes and behaviour.  Above all, why is the sophisticated, liberated and knowledgeable Lucienne interested in the Englishman who is almost half her age and with restricted horizons?  She found his stolen notebooks interesting apparently.  The relationship between Daniel and Lucienne doesn’t convince.

Whatever else may be said about Professor Stott’s fiction, it cannot be claimed she wears her learning lightly.  As well as foregrounding her interest in the scientific climate, she relies heavily on nineteenth-century fictional models.  The Coral Thief is partly a novel of ideas, particularly good on the debate over whether species are fixed or evolve, as one would expect from the author who would later pen Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution.  We learn something about the circulation of evolutionary ideas in the early 1800s, and the friction between the new progressive theories in which Lucienne is steeped and the theological dogma Daniel had absorbed at home and retains despite his scientific training at the University of Edinburgh.  He stands in for the assault on outdated scientific thinking, symbolised by Cuvier.  His scientific horizon expands under Lucienne’s tutelage, learning of alternatives to the orthodoxy of fixed species, notably the theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin.

Lucienne is not the story’s only thief: a theme is the relationship between scientific progress and loot.  The purpose of Cuvier’s party, utilised by the robbers at the end of the book, is to persuade Sebald Brugmans, a Dutch emissary, to allow exhibits in Paris taken from the Dutch by Napoleon’s forces to be allowed to remain there in the interests of science.  Cuvier’s argument is that knowledge transcends national boundaries and its subject matter should be where it can be of greatest value.  Doubtless he would have resisted a counter-argument that the lot could as easily accomplish those ends in The Hague; this disingenuous argument is a cover for the maintenance of national prestige as much as it is an international ideal of scientific advance, but his argument that it is in bringing together information from a variety of sources (his example being elephant skulls) which allows advances to be made is a reasonable one, even if, because of his belief in the immutability of species, Cuvier makes an incorrect inference in assuming no connection between the mammoth and modern elephants based on skull shape.

However, the adventure aspect comes increasingly to the foreground to compete with the ideas, and the two aspects never feel properly integrated.  The old pre-Haussmann Paris is evoked nicely (though the 2017 series Taboo, set in 1814 London, is a a more realistic depiction of a city without adequate sanitation).  So is the fluid political situation, albeit the general mood among the citoyens is surprisingly upbeat given that France has just lost a major war.  But the pacing is off – the lead-up to the climactic robbery is excruciatingly slow when the rhythm should be accelerating.  Stott is too enamoured with conjuring up the period at the expense of the plot for The Coral Thief to be entirely successful.  For some time her website has promised another novel, ‘about contemporary and Roman London called Dereliction’, but this summer (2017) she is due to publish a memoir about her childhood in the Exclusive Brethren in Brighton.  Perhaps she has finally decided novels are not her forte.  Her non-fiction is much better.

NB In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that Rebecca was my supervisor (one of several) when I undertook a PhD at Anglia Ruskin University.  Our professional relationship was terminated by her move to the University of East Anglia, an act for which I accept no responsibility.  My opinion of her as a person has not affected my view of her novels one way or the other.


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