In the 18th century, Dawnay Price is an anomaly. An educated foundling, a woman of science in a time when such things are unheard-of, she overcomes her origins to become a natural philosopher.
Against the conventions of the day, and to the alarm of her male contemporaries, she sets sail to Portugal to develop her theories. There she makes some startling discoveries – not only in an ancient cave whose secrets hint at a previously undiscovered civilisation, but also in her own heart. The siren call of science is powerful, but as war approaches she finds herself pulled in another direction by feelings she cannot control.
This is my weekend for reviewing books that have been sitting on my reading pile for far too long. So many reading friends told me how much I would love this book – and maybe I’m a little strange, but that fact almost put me off. In the end, I chose the book as a read for my U3A Book Club, just to make quite sure that I read it. Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull is available in hardback, paperback and for kindle, published by Hodder and Stoughton. And you know all those people who told me I’d love it? They were absolutely right…
This book absolutely enthralled me from the very first page. Dawnay is the most wonderfully drawn character – complex, highly intelligent, sometimes infuriating, totally out of place in her eighteenth century world but also so totally part of it. I absolutely adored her, with her insatiable thirst for knowledge, her refusal to do anything that is expected of her, her immense capacity for original thought, and her enormous heart.
But magnificent as Dawnay is, she’s certainly not the only reason I loved this book. The writing is simply wonderful. There are descriptions that take your breath away of the caves in the Berlengas, the Lisbon earthquake and battles at sea: but there are also smaller pieces of perfection like the learning of writing by candlelight and the contents of a Minorcan feast. The emotional aspects are so well handled too – horror, fear, anguish and acute tenderness. And the actual mechanics of it all – the recreation of eighteenth century writing is so cleverly done. There’s a quite fascinating author’s note about how it was achieved – but it never made the reading in any way difficult, only added to the incredibly authentic feel.
The research that went into this book must have been immense – but it wears it lightly, as all the best books do. Natural philosophy, evolutionary theory and paleoanthropology sit totally comfortably within a story that had me reading into the early hours, unable to tear myself away. And this really was a quite wonderful story, historical fact seamlessly woven into compelling fiction, told by a natural storyteller, with a quite captivating heroine at its perfect centre.
I’ll certainly be paying much more attention to the recommendations of friends in future…
Rebecca Mascull lives by the sea in the East of England with her partner Simon and their daughter Poppy. She has previously worked in education, and has a Masters in Writing. The Song of the Sea Maid is her second novel.
Follow Rebecca on Twitter, and find out more about the author and her writing through her website and her Facebook author page.