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Updated: October 5, 2013 19:35 IST

Against the tide

Swati Daftuar
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The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.
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The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

A seamless web of science, exploration, spiritual inquiry, colonialism and slavery.

Chances are that you’ll pick up The Signature of All Things because you’ve watched, or read, or heard about Eat Pray Love. Chances are that you’ll be expecting a similar story. The very first page will tell you what the rest of this novel will only reinforce; The Signature of All Things is very different. It’s Gilbert’s surprise to her readers, the best kind of surprise.

At the centre of the novel spins an interconnected web of botany, exploration, colonialism, medicine, spiritual inquiry, slavery and, finally, the early, budding theory of evolution — a sort of something-for-everyone combo. When you meet Henry Wittaker, it’s the late 18th century and he is stewing in embarrassed anger as he watches his meek, mild father toil in Kew Garden. You then watch him toss around on the ship carrying Captain Cook on his voyages. He accumulates wisdom and information that he drops like breadcrumbs throughout the book. He befriends and fights Sir Joseph Banks, and travels in search of the famous fever tree. He earns and hoards wealth, till he has become what is a textbook example of a self-made man. In more detail, since she is the protagonist of this book, Alma Wittaker lives the same rich life,fraught with adventure that she seeks with a sort of stubborn determination.

Perhaps what stands out so plainly in The Signature… is its protagonist and, on a larger scale, its women. Alma’s no shrinking violet. She doesn’t live the familiar ugly duckling-beautiful swan story, and her romantic subplot fades away before it can properly bloom. A passionate woman, Alma finds her answer in the study of mosses. Men break her heart, but not her work, and her life is not a tragedy consumed by a failed relationship. It’s both surprising and heartening to encounter this unfamiliar trope, one that creates characters like not only Alma, but her mother, housekeeper and sister, all of whom occupy a place that is both their choice and their due. Sometimes Gilbert’s voice, though always in the correct language and tone for the century she writes about, is almost too modern. What saves it from becoming difficult to digest is the clear ring of authenticity it carries. You know, even as you read about Alma publishing papers under her own name and being accepted and respected as a bryologist, that she exists within the realm of possibility. At least, you hope she does.

Gibert’s book is a voyage through many countries and many people. It’s a confluence of ideas and stories, and interestingly, science and fiction exist in almost perfect harmony. Even when Gilbert introduces what seems, quite fittingly, the trump card of the book, the plot doesn’t seem to flow over the top. Darwin appears, and it feels like he was always meant to, and Alma’s interactions with Alfred Russell Wallace are both believable and interesting.

Perhaps to begin with, it feels like The Signature… takes on too much. The book is dotted with long, intense discussions on homosexuality, mental diseases, mysticism, the abolitionist movement and, of course, natural science. Indeed, it is the tale of a family, but with its every member so closely involved with the age of enlightenment and so thirsty for information, the book refuses to stay put as a simple family drama. Where Gilbert succeeds is in her finesse as an author to pull all the threads together and weave them almost seamlessly with each other. Certainly, Eat Pray Love might be how we know Gilbert so far, but here is a new book that might very well change things.

The Signature of All Things; Elizabeth Gilbert, Bloomsbury, Rs. 599.

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