I'm extremely impressed by this book -- its poetry and its subtlety, as well as the characterisation.
The novel focuses on Syms Covington, the butcher's boy who becomes Charles Darwin's field assistant. (He's a historical character, and McDonald has used Covington's diaries -- rather sketchy, available online -- as well as Darwin's writing as sources for his portrait.) Covington goes to sea early, following the failure of the leather company at which he was training as a clerk. He's a committed Christian, a Congregationalist who's memorised whole pages of The Pilgrim's Progress, strong in his faith; that, of course, leads him to ask question after question of Darwin (here a rather milk-and-water character without any of Covington's vigour or joie de vivre) as he and Darwin discuss their findings and explore the implications of the birds and animals they observe.
That makes it all sound rather dry, and it isn't. It's a vividly physical novel: long voyages in dangerous waters, collecting expeditions on the pampas, all the trials and rigours of life at sea and in the unmapped territories of the mid-19th century world.
There are two alternating threads: one, set in the 1860s, concerns Covington in Sydney, an ageing sailor, deaf as a post, who strikes up a friendship with MacCracken, a doctor who saves his life. Covington gives nothing away, and it's up to MacCracken to puzzle out this man who's clearly lived a turbulent life and who speaks, sometimes, of matters that he surely cannot understand. The other thread follows Covington as he becomes a sailor, makes and loses friends, meets Darwin, and appoints himself the man's assistant while still pursuing his own projects. There's always something missing, and it's still missing in the later timeframe. This is a novel about love and loyalty, class and breeding, as much as it's about natural philosophy or evolution or religion or the perils of the wide world.
"Seas black, wind raw, timbers wet, faces pink, lips chapped, sails ripping, stays torn asunder. After sighting Cape Horn it took them three weeks to sail thirty miles."
reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place