The Fossil Hunter is an absorbing read, effectively using dual timelines to explore the lives of women and the emerging study of Australian fossils in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Interwoven into the plot is a 70-year-old mystery, linking the novel's 1847 storyline with its 1919 present. The story opens in early 1847 with Mellie, an unhappy and traumatised young girl, recovering from a nasty case of chickenpox as well as a terrifying incident in the bush, and the unexplained absence of her father. Hoping to aid Mellie's convalescence with a change of scenery, her benefactor Mrs. Pearson decides to send a nervous and reluctant Mellie to accompany the other girls to visit “Aunt” Anthea Winstanley at her bushland property Bow Wow. For Mellie, this proves a revelation, as she quickly forms a bond with Anthea and develops a fascination with the fossils she excavates from the gorge located on her property. However, Anthea becomes alarmed when a mysterious stranger arrives at Bow Wow, expressing an interest in purchasing part of the property. In 1919, the Great War having finally drawn to a close, Australian Ambulance Volunteer Penelope Jane "PJ" Martindale visits the Natural History Museum in London, and is fascinated to view fossils catalogued as having been discovered by an "A. Winstanley" at Bow Wow Gorge, New South Wales. Both of her younger brothers were killed in the war, and PJ dreams of honouring their memory by bringing their ambition to fruition - uncover a full Australian ichthyosaur fossil and name it Ichthyosaurus martindalii. Her arrival back in Australia with Sam - who has by this time proposed - is not as welcoming as she'd hoped - her doctor father blames her personally for the enlistment and subsequent deaths of her brothers. Keen to escape the awkwardness of the family home - the same house in which the Pearson family lived 70 years previously - PJ and Sam set out to explore Bow Wow Gorge. They set out looking for fossils, but unwittingly come across skeletonised human remains in a cave off the gorge. What happened at the gorge seventy years ago and whose are the remains that have been hidden for so long? The Fossil Hunter is a thought-provoking and entertaining read, with well-developed characters and an evocative setting in rural-bush Australia. Tea Cooper has created convincing storylines in not one, but two distinct historical periods, subtly exploring the limitations that applied to the rights and opportunities of women in both timeframes. The mystery storyline is intriguing, with the reader given insight ahead of the characters as to where the truth lies. I'd highly recommend The Fossil Hunter to readers who enjoy well-researched historical fiction, especially stories about women's experiences and Australian settings. Any reader who, like myself, has a personal interest in the story of Mary Anning and other pioneering women of science will find this a stimulating read.
4.5★s The Fossil Hunter is a historical novel by Australian author, Teà Cooper. In early 1847, twelve-year-old Mellie Vale is sure her short life is at its lowest point: her mother and baby brother have drowned; her father has left and not returned; and her home and her meagre possessions have been destroyed in a fire to contain the chicken pox she had contracted. Dr Pearson’s family took her in, but she is mercilessly bullied by his staff, one of his daughters, and their friends. When the girls travel to Bow Wow Gorge to stay with Edna Pearson’s good friend and renowned palaeontologist, Anthea Winstanley, Mellie is wary. But she is soon won over by this rather strange woman’s excitement about the possible discovery of the skeleton of an ichthyosaur: the picture she shows them is clearly of a dragon, and Mellie would love to be a dragon hunter. In 1919, as Penelope Jane Martindale waits for Captain Samuel Groves to arrive in London, she heads into the Natural History Museum, the very last place she saw her twin brothers, Dan and Riley, before they were killed in the war. Recalling their enthusiasm for fossils, she wanders into that section only to happen upon fossils from right near her home in Wollombi, NSW, which were found by a woman! Immediately fascinated, she decides to investigate further, as a sort of tribute to her brothers. When PJ and Sam arrive in Wollombi with their war ambulance, locals are very closed-mouthed about Bow Wow Gorge, the actual location that her brothers went looking. When they eventually get to Bow Wow, they find a boarded-up house and some outbuildings. The Gorge has, PJ tells Sam, a haunted feel. Their search for fossils is almost fruitless; the piece they bring home is not at all what they first believe, and exposes what could well be a murder mystery. This dual timeline story is told by Mellie and Anthea in the mid-nineteenth Century, and by PJ in the early twentieth Century. The depth of Cooper’s research is apparent on every page and her descriptive prose is very evocative: the sights, sounds and smells of the Australian bush are particularly well-rendered. The element of mystery will keep the reader enthralled through to the final pages of this superb Australian historical fiction. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Harlequin Australia.
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Tea Cooper is one of the few current day foreign authors whose work I follow. She is an established Australian author of clean, historical fiction. I have truly enjoyed each of her books that I have ...