Monday 19 November 2018

Girl with a strange bone

Remarkable Creatures Tracy Chevalier (HarperCollins stg£15.99) The Einstein Girl Philip Sington, (Harvill Secker, stg£11.99)

London's glorious Natural History Museum features many dinosaur fossils, but some of them catch the eye for an unusual reason. A display informs visitors that they were collected in the early 19th century by a young, impoverished woman in Lyme Regis called Mary Anning. Now Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring and other bestsellers based on real historical figures, has decided to bring Mary's story to a wider audience.

It's a fascinating tale that begins, in Chevalier's version, with the arrival in Lyme Regis of the Philpots, a family of spinster sisters. One of whom, Elizabeth, is fascinated by the fossils that litter the local beaches.

While searching for the ancient shells and plants, she meets Mary Anning, whose family makes extra money by selling little fossils to tourists. Elizabeth and Mary develop a firm but complex friendship across the barriers of class and education. And soon Mary will make some astonishing discoveries in the rocks -- vast skeletons of strange, crocodile-like creatures that, as yet, have no name.

Many historical novels feature characters who feel and act like 21st-century people in fancy dress. Chevalier's characters, however, feel authentic. When faced with the idea that some animals might become extinct and that God might have allowed this to happen, Mary and Elizabeth are confused and unsettled. In an age when the theory of evolution is taken for granted by educated people, Chevalier manages to convey how genuinely challenging these ideas were when they first appeared. That she does this in such an entertaining book is impressive. -- AC

In the early part of the 20th century, Germany was having a heyday in scientific quarters. Albert Einstein's was one of the most recognisable faces in the world and experimental therapies were being carried out in the new field of psychiatry. At the same time, however, the dark shadow of Hitler was looming.

And it's into this milieu that Philip Sington slots his intriguing novel.

In 1932, two months before Hitler's rise to power, a girl is found near death in the woods of Potsdam, close to Berlin.

When she emerges from a coma, she has no memory and cannot even remember her own name.

The only clue to her identity is a handbill, found near her, advertising a lecture by Albert Einstein.

Martin Kirsch, an outspoken young psychiatrist, becomes obsessed with her case.

His investigation leads him to Serbia, the birthplace of Einstein's first wife, Mileva, and to a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland where Einstein's youngest son, Eduard, is a patient.

With Hitler in the ascendant, Einstein flees Germany.

Kirsch's outspoken views on psychiatry are misinterpreted as pro-Hitler and he is promoted.

His first task is to compile a list which would eventually lead to 400,000 patients in mental hospitals undergoing enforced sterilisation.

The heyday was over and time was running out for Kirsch, who had fallen in love with the mystery girl.

Secret correspondence between Einstein and Mileva was released in 1986 and it revealed, for the very first time, that the couple had a daughter, Lieserl, born to them before their marriage.

It is possible that she was adopted, but her fate remains unknown. Inspired by this knowledge, Sington has concocted an imaginative but plausible scenario for Lieserl in this atmospheric thriller. -- AD

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