In the recent film The Revenant, set in the Montana wilderness of the early 1800s, it is hard to distinguish the trappers in their bear coats and patched skins from the wild creatures around them. In fact, the men are so much a part of the natural world they virtually become the very animals they are hunting. A version of this phenomenon – our fascination with, and interdependence upon, the wild – permeates Alissa York’s fourth novel. Instead of a snowy mountain landscape, the story inhabits the torrid, teeming Amazon, and in lieu of men and hairy beasts, the novel belongs to scaly reptiles, a widow, her stepson, and a Quaker farmgirl.
The story takes place in the late 1860s when Darwin was transforming paradigmatic views of creation with his theory of natural selection and biological evolution. When naturalist Walter Ash dies suddenly just before a trip to the Amazon, his bookish son Paul takes his place. Accompanying Paul on the voyage are his widowed stepmother, Iris, and her companion, Rachel Weaver, a young Quaker girl raised on a farm, who has a habit of collecting cast-off feathers and snakeskins, which she stuffs into her pocket.
The Naturalist centres on the conflict between civilization and nature; the story’s opening scenes and images embody this tension. When Rachel first enters the Ash mansion in Philadelphia, she is immediately struck by the carefully framed portraits of various reptiles. “A long armoured beast … floated among lily pads” in one image; in another, an iguana with apple-green skin and a whip of a tail grips a branch with yellow claws.
Rachel is entranced by the hot-house atrium, which releases “a gust of earthy air,” and wonders how transplanting pieces of the jungle to a human environment affects the relationship between divergent worlds. Surely, collections of tropical specimens housed under glass merely accentuate the vast distance between jungle and drawing room? Perhaps, but the novel suggests that they also frame our inability to coexist with nature without killing its creatures and holding them as objects. As Walter writes in his field notebook, “If we confine ourselves to the acts of listing, do we not create a necrology rather than a study of life?”
The reader soon recognizes that Paul has been similarly uprooted from his native habitat. Paul’s mother was a mameluco, or mixed-blood Brazilian woman, whose family were river people; the child was transported out of the jungle as a baby. “It was one thing to disappear into the jungle in the spirit of scientific endeavour, quite another to emerge from that rank wilderness with a half-breed son.” The journey back to the Amazon enables Paul to surround himself with his native environment and to get to know his remaining blood family.
Fittingly, York’s characters are often likened to animals: Iris is a “skittish mare,” and Rachel swims like a “slender frog.” Paul’s Brazilian uncle is built like a bull, with a broad nose and brow and unsettling, direct gaze. Paul himself brings to mind a deer: “Strange for a body so solid to move with such grace. …He had a deer’s [autumn brown] colouring. … A deer’s dark, watchful eyes.” These comparisons serve to underline our evolutionary descent from primates and other important links to the wild.
Paul’s sensibility is more literary than scientific, and he seeks “the veins of pure narrative” within the bedrock of research, often by quoting poetry. He is the perfect foil to Rachel, who – in a memorable scene – boldly kneels on Paul’s thigh while his aunt tweezes out a stingray’s barb, an act that bonds the pair amid blood and screams. If only there were more such scenes. The Naturalist is far too tame, and despite the dramatic potential of the material, the pace is rather slow.
York’s tone is stately and restrained, the diction formal, at times stilted, and the story unfolds from an omniscient point of view. Unfortunately, the attempt to recreate a 19th-century locution calls attention to the fact that this is a “historical novel”: the ideal genre reading experience should be immersive, like what Hilary Mantel achieves in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, rather than self-conscious. In The Naturalist, Walter’s field notebooks, as well as letters from Rachel’s parents, provide the texture of first-person voices and offer crucial backstory, but suffer from the same wooden diction.
York did prodigious research; she cites several pages of sources at the end. Though the dense detail about Amazon wildlife is impressive, and may interest some readers, it would have benefited from greater authorial selection. Unfiltered descriptions of jungle plants and creatures bog down the story and camouflage the proverbial forest with the trees. They sap wildness from the wild.