Any woman might marvel at a feather, but it takes a special turn of mind to appreciate a scale. [Walter Ash]
I was so excited about The Naturalist when I saw it was coming out. I mean, it has a turtle on the cover! Two years ago, her last book, Fauna, was the choice for One Book Nova Scotia, and I thought it was lovely. (My review, which was one of the first ones I wrote, so go easy on me.) Her other books have also been recommended to me by a trusted blogger.
My initial reaction to this book was a case of my expectations getting in the way of my enjoyment of the story. I had my mind set on something different from the story that was written, and I wish I could go back and try again. I think too, because of the setting along the Amazon River, I was comparing it to books like Euphoria and State of Wonder, but this is a very different book. As it should be.
The Naturalist is a quiet novel, filled with the descriptions of nature as it is, rather than what we imagine it could be. Like Fauna, which also has a strong emphasis on nature, I would recommend this to nature-lovers, and not necessarily to readers who like plot-driven novels. Although I didn’t find all the characters likeable, they were interesting, and their interactions with each other are deliberate and subtle, working up to the story’s conclusion, which is also quiet.
It is 1867 and Iris is the widow of the naturalist, Walter Ash. Iris, along with her companion (Rachel) and her step-son (Paul), have gone on the trip that she had been planning with Walter before he died. Over the course of their trip, the characters struggle with their grief and how they fit together now that Walter is gone. Themes of nature are strong in the book, as you would expect, and it becomes clear that the true naturalist in the story is Rachel, who believes in observing animals in their own habitat, rather than catching them and taking them home to put on display.
The narration alternates between Rachel and Paul; Rachel being our tie to Iris and the natural world, and Paul being our tie to the past and the longing for a place to call home.
There was one thing about the book that I found distracting while reading – the frequent use of Portuguese phrases throughout the text. Being the kind of person who reads every word, I found myself trying to work out the pronunciations for all these words and phrases that I didn’t know, when there was no need. Other readers may not have this problem.
A highlight/bookish coincidence: Paul often refers to Humboldt’s account of his travels in the area.
This is a book I would love to discuss; the characters, the ideas, the style… I also hope to read more of Alissa York’s backlist.
Everyone I know who has read this book thinks very highly of it, and now I finally know why. What a great story; good writing, good characters, good knowledge of the Jewish faith and community in Montreal. The only thing I didn’t like about this book was the mystical stuff (a very small thing). I can only buy into it if I explain it as mental instability brought on by the events that take place. But maybe that’s how I’m supposed to think of it anyway…
The book is broken up into four parts.
Part 1: Lev tells us about his family; his mother who died, his father (David) who works a lot, and his sister (Samara) who he seems to be very close with. This was my favourite section of the book. Lev is a sweet, innocent boy who loves his family and would do anything to keep it together or make it better (like his attempts to hook his father up with a nice woman).
That night, at dinner, Dad asked again what me and Sammy were learning in school. He wanted to know how Sammy was liking King Lear so far, but she just stared down at her skirt, so instead I just told him all about Ms. Davidson and how she went for bike rides in the middle of the night and wore happy colors and really made you think. After a few minutes, he yawned. I could tell he was extremely bored but I kept on talking because that was the only way, because if I kept on talking, word after word, drop after drop, sooner or later a space would open up.
Part 2: Ten years later, David has had a heart attack and Lev and Samara are coming home to stay with him for a while. I found David to be a sympathetic and interesting character, but not a very likeable one. He really doesn’t have life figured out any more than his kids do, and instead of putting time and energy into his family, he puts it into his work.
This wasn’t just a competition anymore; we were locked in a war. I went to bed shaking with rage. And, that was why, when Miriam left the house the next day and went to the grocery store to buy saltines, f*cking saltines, and got hit by a car and died, a part of me was horrified but a part of me was vindicated, was triumphant, and that was the part of my that felt like screaming from the rooftops: Yes! Yes! Exactly! Yes! That is how meaningless life can be.
I had wanted an answer. But how I suddenly loved the question.
Part 3: Samara finds her father’s research, and picks up where he left off. The project itself is about climbing the Tree of Life, something that is considered dangerous and only meant for a select group of people (females not permitted, of course). But Samara persists, and her girlfriend/partner becomes increasingly worried about her, until she has finally gone too far…
Don’t see signs in everything. It makes it impossible to live.
Part 4: This section is from the point of view of several of the characters from Mile End. In addition to Lev, Samara, and David, there are also a few neighbours involved in the story; their Kabbalah teacher, Mr Glassman, crazy Mr. Katz, and Lev’s long-time friend, the nerdy love-struck Alex. Will Samara and Lev be able to find a connection again; to themselves, and to each other?
What if she saw, all those years ago, something it took me decades to understand: that the world is not pretty, but human beings need to try to make it so. Not by escaping into some higher world, not by seeking some invisible sign up in the sky – but by seeking it here, here on the earth, here in the people around you – “
Mr Glassman tells a story in this section – Yankel’s story – about the Kingdom of Silence and the Word Tree. The book is worth reading just for this story alone.
A book about grief, faith, family, and home. Highly recommended.
You can find a long list of both interviews and reviews of Sigal Samuel’s book on her website. I particularly recommend the interviews, in which Samuel talks about the themes of her novel as well as the connection it has to her own life/family.
“I wanted to pose the question: What’s the value of devoting yourself to some notion of holiness if it means leaving behind those who love you most?”