The Naturalist’s Daughter by Tea Cooper

This is a wonderful novel, set in Australia and England, about two extraordinary young women, a century apart, who are embroiled in the great scientific mystery of the Antipodes that was the platypus.

In 1808, young Rose Winton adores working with her father, Charles, studying and creating detailed drawings of the platypus in its natural environment. Clever, quick-witted and resourceful, Rose is a wonderful foil and encouragement to her kind, studious father who is supported in his research, in part, by a meagre sum of money from none other than the great botanist and scientist, Joseph Banks in England. When an opportunity to present his findings to the Royal Society in London arrives, Charles Winton is thrilled – at last, all his hard work and dedication will reap the rewards and recognition he deserves. But when something happens that prevents him going, he sends Rose, equipped with his glorious and detailed sketchbook and findings, in his stead. Filled with equal parts excitement and trepidation, little does Rose know that her journey to the “mother-country” will be just that – a dangerous journey into a past that she had no knowledge of and which her mother, transported to the colonies years earlier, has tried hard to forget.

At the newly established Mitchell library in Sydney 1908, Tamsin Alleyn has been tasked with proving the provenance of an old sketchbook that is going to be donated by a reclusive woman living in the Hunter Valley. Sent to see the old woman, Tamsin is thrown into the company of lawyer and wanna-be antiquarian book dealer, Shaw Everdene, and his clients, people with a vested interest in not only the sketch-book but discovering the origins and real owner as well. What Tamsin learns – about the book, but also about Shaw, herself and her past, simply deepens the mystery of not only the sketchbook, but those who filled it with their studies and what happened to them so long ago…

Once I started this book, I found it hard to put down. The settings are wonderfully created, whether it’s the Hunter Valley, early 1900s Sydney or London and Cornwall in the 1800s. The characters are as vividly drawn as the sketches of the platypus and the small but rich details of life on the land and in the city and the spaces between captivatingly rendered. History is brought to life in this cleverly plotted book, as is early Australia and the relationships between the Indigenous population, the land and the white settlers, but never at the expense of a rollicking good story. I stayed up till the wee hours to finish this marvellous novel and it was worth the thick head and bleary-eyes today. I look forward to reading more of Copper’s books.

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