Book review: The Fossil Hunter by Tea Cooper

(cover image Harper Collins Australia)

Split narratives, whether its differing timeframes, character point-of-view or physical location, can be problematic in novels.

While they can shed illumination aplenty on the storyline, their two vantage points providing dual and hopefully complementary insight on the unfolding story, they can often end up with one being compelling and the other not so much, leading to a mad dash through the less favoured sections to the parts that are resonating.

There’s no issue with prolific historical fiction author Tea Cooper’s novel, The Fossil Hunter, which is as beguiling and invigorating to read whether you’re in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, or in the company of two, really three, quite remarkable women, all of whom prove to be as captivating to read about as the other.

Set in 1847 and 1919, The Fossil Hunter is part social history, part whodunnit, and part character study, all three elements melding seamlessly together in a story that has its parts far back in Australia’s prehistoric past when ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs swam in the great sea that covered much of the inland way back when.

One person who believes wholeheartedly in the presence of these near-mythic creatures in the modern day Hunter Valley (north of Sydney) of New South Wales is Anthea Winstanley, an older widowed woman whose land claim includes the fossil-rich serenity of Bow Wow Gorge near Kurri Kurri, a place which provides her with an escape from the loneliness of widowhood but which, just as importantly, helps satisfies a fierce intellect and love of scientific investigation which sees her fossil hunting far more often than not.

“Told simply, it sounded like a romantic dream. Handsome American whisks colonial doctor’s daughter away from ravaged Europe and together they embark on a trip in search of an undiscovered fossil bed that could hold the answer to the hidden mysteries of life on Earth.” (P. 81)

Her story takes place in 1847 when, once again, the children (and their friends) of an old strong acquaintance have come to stay for 10 days, all of them ready to dig up fossils, all while hopefully shedding more light on the amazing prehistoric life that once roamed the area on which Anthea’s land sits.

While Anthea has no time or energy for what ladies are supposed to do – she is kindhearted free spirit who cares more for satisfying intellectual curiosity and looking after people than complying with societal expectation – now-young ladies Lydia and Ella, the latter especially, care very much about being seen to do what is right which includes getting a husband, who likely will not approve of their wife to be digging up fossils from ancient landscapes.

The younger girls, Bea and Grace, go along with their assigned tasks but don’t have the heart for it that their “aunt” does, marking in strong contrast to the fifth member of that year’s visiting group, Mellie Vale, an orphaned 12-year-old whose benefactor is Anthea’s friend, and who, in need of a home and a place to belong, quickly becomes as enraptured by fossils as Anthea herself.

In just ten days, bright, excitable, intelligent Mellie, who is nothing like the four pampered young middle class ladies with whom she travelled to Bow Wow Gorge and who has experience great pain and loss in her short life, develops a passion for fossil hunting which sees her getting up early each morning, avidly cleaning her finds and binding with Anthea in a way that her “nieces” have never really done.

Tea Cooper (image courtesy Australian Fiction Authors)

Fast forward 72 years and newly-returned from World War One ambulance driver Penelope Jane (PJ) Martindale, whose father is the doctor at Wollombi, relatively near Kurri Kurri, finds herself drawn to Bow Wow Gorge after a chance encounter at the Natural History Museum in London leads her to wonder if there might be a connection to the fossil hunting carried out by her twin brothers who died in the war and some mysterious events in Bow Wow Gorge some seventy years earlier.

While it’s an idle curiosity at first, it quickly becomes so much more for PJ, handsome American fellow ex-ambulance driver Sam who might just want to marry her in tow, who becomes consumed with what happened at Bow Wow Gorge, driven in part by a need to make peace with her father who appears to somehow blame her for the loss of two of his three children.

What starts as an exercise in diversion, soon becomes so much more with PJ finding connection in the unlikeliest of places and perhaps a way to bring together the past and the present in a way that will not just bring her and her father some measure of peace and reconciliation but those of others too, one of whom is in need of setting some old demons to rest.

“Seventeen years she had waited for this moment—the image of Mary’s drawings danced in front of her eyes. An ichthyosaur, maybe a plesiosaur? She’d take either, and so would Mellie. The thought of having someone to share her elation spurred her on and she jumped the last yard on to the sandy bank of the creek.” (P. 247)

The Fossil Hunter is a brilliantly-realised, richly told piece of historical fiction.

Alive with vibrant characters and passionate love for mystery, humanity and scientific exploration, The Fossil Hunter brings the past alive in ways that entrance and beguile, all without resorting to any kind of histrionic build-up or melodramatic finale.

In fact, even as the story builds and builds and PJ gets closer and closer to putting all the pieces together, with help from Sam and some other people who become part of a found family of sorts, the novel stays its nuanced and engaging course, telling a gripping story while keeping its firmly on the ground.

It is a beautiful piece of storytelling that is infused with a clear love of scientific thought, female characters who are the main players and not sidekicks to the men (always a refreshing change of focus in any book) and an abundance appreciation for history, with the author adding an “historical note” at the end to shed further light on the story.

The Fossil Hunter is a gem, a book that understands that good people can make poor decisions for understandable reasons, and which doesn’t damn them for it, preferring to see hope and reconciliation, forgiveness and rebirth as things which can happen in real life, even after many decades have elapsed, and which can transform damaged lives in ways big and small that redeem the present from the darkness and dashed hopes of the past.

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