The Naturalist by Alissa York

Read: 11 February, 2017

After the death of the titular naturalist, his wife, her companion, and his half-Brazilian son from a previous marriage decide to complete the planned expedition to Brazil. As they travel, all three must work through their grief – their grief at the naturalist’s death, as well as the long ignored griefs of their past.

Reading the set up, it’s hard to imagine a book more perfectly tailored to me. We have a Canadian author writing about a 19th century Quaker exploring the Amazon. It’s like York specifically set out to write a novel just for me!

And, for the most part, it delivers. I loved the sprinkling of Portuguese dialogue (and was surprised by just how much I could understand, thanks to my background of French and two years of Spanish classes in high school!), and the descriptions of the jungle were really interesting.

Where it fell a little short was in the characters themselves. Rachel is set up to be torn between her very conservative religious background and the freedom offered her by her bold mistress, but the conflict seems largely resolved by the time the story starts. We get a bit of it in flash backs, but that’s about it.

Paul should be a very interesting character. He is mixed-race, and severed from his mother’s culture through her death in childbirth. In addition to this, he is the son of a passionate naturalist but not being particularly into biology himself (a conflict that becomes even more interesting when we discover that his father’s passions had put him in opposition to his own parents as well). It all should be very compelling. And there are glimpses, but he ends up spending so much of his time passively reading his father’s journal while we get too little of how he is processing what he learns.

Iris is mostly kept at arm’s length, but I’m okay with this. It would have been nice to see her journey more intimately, but we only ever see her through the eyes of others. Still, given her importance to Rachel’s character arc, this does somewhat work – especially since evidences of Iris’s own arc are present in how she is described. She’s left up to the reader to translate, just as she is translated by Paul and Rachel. She could easily have been the main character of this book, but I’m okay with the way she is distanced and, to an extent, objectified by the others. It works.

This isn’t a book with a big climax or epiphany. It’s a journey, characters grow in the course of it, and then it ends. My only complaint is that, while the journey part was interesting, it overwhelmed the character parts. We saw too little of our main characters, too little of how they react to experiences and discoveries, and we don’t get to see much of their growth. While some of that is because York chooses to imply their feelings through descriptions of their physical actions, a lot of it is because it just doesn’t happen. Too much of their development happened off-screen, before the plot began, and we only learn about it after the fact. That, combined with an over-reliance on flashbacks near the beginning of the book, holds it back from shining.

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