The Naturalist by Alissa York
The Naturalist by Alissa York is one of those few rare books where you open it up – read the first page – and you are a goner. Captured instantly by the prose and the characters, and the first few words of story.
We are immediately introduced to Iris Ash as well as her caregiver, and friend, Rachel. We also learn about the late Walter Ash. It is the summer of 1867, in Philadelphia. Walter was an anthropologist who unexpectedly died while he was planning his second expedition to the Amazon. His widow, Iris, has decided to go in his place, and will be accompanied by Rachel and by Walter’s son, Paul.
The expedition had been well planned – to voyage again into the same territory where Walter had spent time many years earlier, where Paul was born to Walter’s first wife who died there in childbirth. Iris is a much younger and more recent wife, a woman in whose company Paul is still uncomfortable.
Iris took Rachel into her home before Walter’s death, treated her as one of the family, and has come to rely on her assistance and unwavering loyalty. For Rachel the Ash home is a haven, a place she can live safely away from her own family, allowing them to know that she has chosen a different path than that which they had planned for her.
Paul struggles with his emotions about his relationship with his late father and issues between them now left unresolved by his sudden death. It is a troubled threesome that departs from Philadelphia for the long journey to the Amazon. Remember it is 1867, but there is already quite a lot of exploration in the region. Anthropologists and naturalists are scouring the river and the forest for every sort of flora and fauna, to fill the museums of America and Europe. Walter rejoiced in his collection, with purpose built rooms to house and display his obsession. There are collections like this across Europe and North America, rooms and buildings full of the collections of rich men who brought their spoils home from the far reaches of the world. I find both the collections and the collectors fascinating, even if it is all more than a little objectionable these days.
Our trio arrives in a town on the Orinoco River where Walter once lived. His friends welcome Walter’s family and will assist them in their exploration. Iris, Rachel, and Paul each have their own reason for being there – and each will be forever changed by what they experience there.
The Naturalist is a book that benefits from the reader knowing as little as possible about the story as it unfolds and more and more is revealed about the past as the story progresses. Reading The Naturalist was a great pleasure from the first page to the last.