The Great Unknown

Peg Kingman. Norton, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-324-00336-6
The anonymous 1844 publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a controversial text that anticipated the work of Darwin, serves as the linchpin for this beautifully wrought, panoramic historical from Kingman (Not Yet Drown’d). Events center on the Edinburgh household of the Chambers family and their wet nurse, Constantia MacAdam, all of whom become familiar with how the text challenges their Victorian culture’s prevailing religious and political beliefs. Through meticulously detailed descriptions of the Chambers family and their friends, Kingman shows how the work’s scientific speculations are reflected in innumerable facets of their day-to-day lives: the births and deaths of children, the distinguishing physiological peculiarities of several family members, the horticultural wisdom of the household’s gardener, the fossil hunting obsession of Constantia’s husband, Hugh, and even the couple’s Chartist working-class sympathies. While the plot never veers from the quiet of the English and French countryside, Kingman ably pulls together the many threads to paint the portrait of a time when humanity perched on the precipice of great change. Kingman’s evocation of a specific time and place, and her depiction of the role that chance, rather than deliberate design, plays both in the natural world and in her characters makes for gratifying storytelling. Kingman masterfully combines history with propulsive drama. (Feb.)
Reviewed on : 01/17/2020
Release date: 02/18/2020
Genre: Fiction
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