From Publishers Weekly
Darwin's theories have been under attack since he first published The Origin of Species
in 1859, but this grandly ambitious novel goes a few steps further to intimate that he was a fraud—and a murderer. Told by turns from three perspectives, the story opens in the present on a volcanic outcrop off the coast of Ecuador where Hugh Kellem, a British field researcher, while tracing Darwin's research path, meets Beth Dulcimer, a beautiful scientist rumored to be distantly related to Darwin. A quick shift shows an ambitious young Darwin about to embark on the Beagle
. A little further on, Darwin's youngest daughter, Lizzie, enters via her journal entries, written in the 1870s, decades after Darwin's famous five-year voyage. As the three perspectives unfold, Hugh and Beth find themselves trying to solve the same mystery that intrigued Lizzie 130 years earlier: what happened on the "nuit de feu
," the night that transformed the confident, robust Darwin into a haunted near-invalid for his remaining years? Stilted dialogue, perfunctory romance and expendable subplots make for a rough voyage, but Darnton (Neanderthal
) puts real passion into his historical imaginings and recreations: the revelation of the "true" origin of the theory of evolution is particularly inspired and more than enough to sustain another Darntonian bestseller.
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Darnton's latest novel on scientific themes follows Hugh Kellem, an anthropologist whose study of Darwin's finches leads him to Cambridge, where, listlessly searching through Darwin's papers for a thesis topic, he stumbles upon a secret diary kept by Darwin's second daughter, Lizzie. Darnton interweaves Hugh's investigation with excerpts from Lizzie's writings and with flashbacks to Darwin's voyage aboard the Beagle. Both Darwin's daughter and the modern researcher become obsessed with the twenty-two-year gestation period between the voyage and Darwin's publication of his theory. The solution to the mystery manages to be not only fussily elaborate but fundamentally simplistic, and it involves too many dark hints and convenient coincidences. Still, Darnton has a good feel for both the Victorian era and the modern scientific milieu.
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker