The Botanist's Daughter by Kayte Nunn
Hachette, 2018. ISBN 9780733639388
(Age: Senior secondary - Adult) Starting a little slowly, yet creating two worlds that have no defining link, this novel is captivating, rich in depiction of the past, and cleverly interspersing the two stories. The title suggests a story of a family and an interest in botany, and it is that, yet this book offers much more than a simple family history. One story is set firmly in the present, where a young woman can take herself off to England to seek an understanding of the book's provenance, while the other plunges us into the past, particularly referring to the place of women at the time of the story, telling a story set in the 1880s. Both narratives delve into the lives of women in their era, especially elucidating the differences between the possibilities for the two: between education, freedom to travel, learn, work or interact outside the family, and to create a life for one's self.
Placing her narrative in these two distinct eras, beginning the story in the 1886, in England, and Sydney in 2017, Kayte Nunn takes us into the lives, and indeed the minds, of two characters, exploring their worlds and considering the wider world and time in which each lived. Each story is lightly told while both are revelatory of the particular differences for women in their times.
The modern story begins when an old book of beautiful botanical illustration is discovered hidden within the wall cavity of an old Sydney house, the owner, a young woman, is stunned. Captivated by the beauty and artistry of the illustrations, the owner, Anna, realizes that she is keen to unravel the mystery of the origin of this book, and her determination to do so takes her to England. Back in Australia, while Anna is redecorating the house, relishing her discoveries and enjoying the search for what kind of person was this ancestor of hers, she comes to believe that perhaps it was an inherited interest that drew her into botany and the kind of life had she has lived.
The story is told in two parts, that of the historical search by an English woman and her servant, and that of the modern woman who has found the intriguing diary. Moving back and forth between the narratives, Nunn reveals that the original botanist was Anna's grandmother, yet we are eager to unravel the mystery of why the book was hidden and what is the accompanying history of this grandmother.
Beautifully written, clearly and simply narrated from the perspective of both grandmother and granddaughter, who had not known one another, this captivating novel creates a link between two distinct eras. Nunn deftly creates an enigmatic story-line, while subtly revealing the differences in the freedom and choices of women in the modern era and that of the past in England in 1886, and indeed of the violence that took place in defence of what one believed to be the right to ownership.
This book is intriguing and would be appropriate for older adolescent readers and indeed most interesting for adult readers, particularly those who love a good historical novel that has an added twist.