Friday, March 23, 2012

The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton

Publisher: Brilliance Audio (2005)

Narrated by: Bernadette Quigley, David Colacci, and Buck Schirner

Blurb from In this riveting new novel, bestselling author John Darnton transports us to Victorian England and around the world to reveal the secrets of a legendary nineteenth-century figure. Darnton elegantly blends the power of fact and the insights of fiction to explore the many mysteries attached to the life and work of Charles Darwin. What led Darwin to the theory of evolution? Why did he wait twenty-two years to write On the Origin of Species? Why was he incapacitated by mysterious illnesses and frightened of travel? Who was his secret rival? These are some of the questions driving Darnton’s richly dramatic narrative, which unfolds through three vivid points of view: Darwin’s own as he sails around the world aboard the Beagle; his daughter Lizzie’s as she strives to understand the guilt and fear that struck her father at the height of his fame; and that of present-day anthropologist Hugh Kellem and Darwin scholar Beth Dulcimer, whose obsession with Darwin (and with each other) drives them beyond the accepted boundaries of scholarly research. What Hugh and Beth discover - Lizzie’s diaries and letters lead them to a hidden chapter of Darwin’s autobiography - is a maze of bitter rivalries, petty deceptions, and jealously guarded secrets, at the heart of which lies the birth of the theory of evolution.

This audiobook hit several marks for me: entertaining, educational, excellent audio production. As a biologist by education and inclination, I've heard bits and pieces of Darwin's life over the years. In this book, John Darnton filled in many of the gaps for me with facts and then went a step further with some calculated guesswork.

Jumping back and forth between three timelines, the tale unfolds secrets from each bit by bit. Hugh Kellem has his past haunting with the death of a much-loved older brother. Beth Dulcimer has a murky, hidden past involving a mysterious generations-old adoption. We are introduced to them both on the island of Sin Nombre, in the Galapagos studying Darwin's finches.

Then we meet Darwin as a young man, trying to gain berth on a ship for an adventure. He eventually gets his place on The Beagle and we get to follow along on his adventures around the world.

The third timeline is told through Lizzie Darwin's letters and journals. She tries to ferret out her father's secrets and eventually has to carry them herself. She was the most interesting and engaging character for me.

I loved watching the modern day researchers, Hugh and Beth, try to figure out this old mystery, stumbling upon bits and pieces of Lizzie's journals. We first see Lizzie as a young lady, just barely coming into womanhood, snooping around her father's study. Then it skipped ahead some years to Lizzie, a woman in love and with secrets of her own.

Young Darwin was quite the adventurer and somewhat of an athlete - climbing, hiking, swimming, riding, etc. Him and his shipmates came into several scrapes with the native peoples of the places they visited. This is quite a contrast from the retired, sick Darwin of some years later. He is wracked by pain and recurring stomach illnesses, and perhaps guilt or regret.

The narrators (Quigley, Colacci, Schirner) brought these historical and fictional characters to life. Bernadette Quigley had such a rich voice for Lizzie, and precocious for the Young Lizzie. David Colacci and Buck Schirner brought Hugh Kellem and Young and Old Darwin to vibrancy.

++++: Multiple mystery lines, adventure from the days when the world was not wholey known, and I really enjoyed the answer to the Darwin mystery.

-: Occassionally the parts concerning modern-day sleuths Hugh and Beth were a little slow and I was eager to return to the past and Darwin's mysteries.