A good friend lent me this book with the comment, ‘I’d love to know what you think about this…’
From the moment Alma Whittaker steps into the world, everything about life intrigues her. Instilled with an unquenchable sense of wonder by her father, a botanical explorer and the richest man in the New World, Alma is raised in a house of luxury and curiosity. It is not long before she becomes a gifted botanist in her own right. But as she flourishes and her research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction – into the realm of the spiritual, the divine and the magical.
And the brief blurb does this book as much credit as the phrase, ‘a potted history of Thomas Cromwell’s early life,’ adequately describes Wolf Hall. To be fair, The Signature of All Things is a beast of a book – coming in at 580 pages of fine print, so trying to sum it up an a short paragraph was always going to be a challenge.
It charts Alma’s life from the day she is born, 5th January 1800, right up until her very old age. And it is a life full of contradictions – brought up in a fabulously wealthy household, she nevertheless is taught strict obedience, frugality, attention to detail and rigorously schooled by her Dutch mother. An only child, she is suddenly presented with an adopted sister when she is 10 years old – a dainty, beautiful girl who is everything Alma is not… Despite being the daughter of a wealthy man, she is not besieged by suitors as a young girl – although there is one man who she has fallen in love with. And I’m not going further because to do so would be to lurch into spoiler territory. Suffice to say that it would be all too easy to turn this book into a heartbreaking melodrama – there is certainly the material to do so.
But Gilbert turns this book into so much more than that. In amongst her duties as her father’s secretary and administrator, Alma is a bryologist, which means she studies mosses. And her work brings her into contact with other naturalists and lithographers – including Ambrose…
As well as becoming engrossed in Alma’s life, I was also fascinated by Prudence, her adopted sister. Though neither girl bonded with the other, their paths cross in ways that profoundly affected each of them, and indirectly, leads to Alma’s restless travelling at an age when most of her contemporaries are settling down to a life of placid routine. The wealth of historical detail; the state of Tahiti at the time, when the native people are still reeling from the epidemics that ripped through the population; Gilbert’s iron grip on the pacing and narrative tension that ensured that the story pinged off the page… This is a masterpiece.
If you enjoy historical fiction and strong, intelligent heroines, then track down this book. It is, undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read this year.