Mr. Darwin's Shooter
"The great trust that Covington had in the world's advancement of his fate, that he was born to and found only rarely shaken, he brought with him from Bedfordshire to the sea." (p 71)
Roger McDonald is a noted Australian novelist however this is the first of his books that I have had the pleasure of reading. Like The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami that I read earlier this year, this is a book based on the life of a real person. Syms Covington, the titular protagonist of this story was a person like most people who have lived and were forgotten. Now his life has been impressively reclaimed from history's notorious dustbin in this novel by Roger McDonald.
Syms Covington was 15 years old when he joined the crew of H.M. S. Beagle for a journey that would change forever both his own life and humanity's view of our place in the world. As collector and shooter and all-around assistant, young Covington accompanied Darwin throughout the five-year voyage and for two years of wrap-up work after the return to England. The Darwin biographer Janet Browne describes Covington as the unacknowledged shadow behind Darwin's every triumph. McDonald's fictionalized account of Covington's life is a well-researched book, rich in the complicated issues that surround Darwin and his work, especially its shock to Victorian religious sensibilities. But this novel is genuinely about Syms Covington, not about Darwin. It is about his adventurous life, which happens to accompany for a time that of a man destined to become the most influential scientist of his era.
McDonald imbues his story with the textures and assumptions of 19th-century life including religion, work, clothes, food, even shipboard floggings. The result is a well wrought tale of a man who embodies the milieu of his generation. It is the story of a daring, courageous, passionate man who is troubled by his own small role in the shocking changes going on about him. When we first meet Syms he is 12 years old, the religion-drenched son of a butcher. We accompany him as he and Charles Darwin and the natural sciences grow up. As readers we follow him into a contentious, disappointed middle age.
McDonald constantly surprises. His prose is ebullient, at times boisterous, holding the interest of the reader with language so vivid and original, alternately comic and tragic, that it reminded me of the novels of Dickens. McDonald makes his history come alive by refusing to stray from the sweaty, angry, sad, and sometimes violence of reality. This is one of the better historical novels I have read.