The year is 1866 and Mrs Pemberton is on trial for the murder of Mr Scales. Seven years earlier, Gwen Carrick meets Edward Scales on a Cornish beach. They soon start up a flirtatious acquaintance; Gwen introducing Edward to her love of the natural world and Edward hanging on her every word. But Edward’s life is full of secrets and Gwen struggles to live with her spiritualist sister who despises Darwin’s theories. From Cornwall to the rainforests of Brazil, the web of deception becomes ever more tangled.

Despite staring out to sea for much of my life, the fact of its vastness had somehow, somewhere slipped from my imagination: now I am surrounded by this ever moving, ever changing & never changing grey swell of fathomless water, without the security of a rock at my back. The wind, a different animal out here, tugs from all sides – and I had never imagined how swift the shift in temperature might be.

Gwen is a wonderfully modern woman in a society where her outspokenness makes her inconvenient in polite society, never mind her support of Darwinism. If it were just Gwen’s story of succeeding in a man’s world, I think I could have loved her story but the plot is all over the place. Effie’s spiritualism could have been the perfect opposite to Gwen’s scientific nature, although both passions pushing them outside of what is socially acceptable. Yet Effie is suddenly painted as mentally unstable, with no indicators running up to the event, she does something shocking even by today’s standards. Considering the Victorian propensity for packing loved ones off to asylums, it’s odd that she’s just left alone.

Edward is completely inconsistent. There are so many elements to his life that I don’t know where to start. At first he seems charming, if a bit simple but certainly enamoured with Gwen. Then there’s this whole subterfuge thing in the summerhouse; leading me up to be very confused for a while until I realised what had happened. There’s a rough diamond that keeps cropping up but its relevance is never revealed. When they go to Brazil, he suddenly wants to be the man in charge and starts patronising Gwen, at odds to the relationship in England. There’s the wife and the woman with hypertrichosis, deaths, disease, marriages and births. Secret books and spying servants. Not to mention a very weird section at the end regarding sexual dysfunction. And is the thing in the cellar what I think it is? I got to the end thinking I must have missed the point of the book. Is there some thread connecting all the elements?

The book had creaked a greeting at her. The fanning sections had kissed the air, the open lower edges sucking in space. When she closed the book with a disregarding flick, the cover said fphphphf.

I can understand Gwen falling for Edward in the first place. Here is a man who is actually interested in what she has to say about the natural world and emerging theories. I can even understand her running off with him as an unmarried women; she is ahead of her times remember and I’m sure she doesn’t believe a woman must be married to get along in life. Even when she finds herself in above her head, she still made sense to me, under the circumstances. It’s just everyone else around her didn’t.

I found the sections about the murder trial a bit awkward to read. They were set in newspaper style columns and in a very formal language, mimicking what would have been reported at the time. In contrast, I enjoyed Martha’s more natural prose; I think she has the potential to write beautifully once the plotting elements are ironed out. By the end, I had started to enjoy the silliness of it all, although I’m not sure that was her aim. The ingredients are there for a fantastic book, Darwinism, Victorian scandal, murder, exploration and betrayal, but something went wrong in the baking.

The Specimen is published by Canongate and is now available in hardback and ebook formats. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review. Below is Martha’s stop-frame animation book trailer that she made herself.

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