(Canongate Books Ltd, 2013), £12.99
Martha Lea’s The Specimen is set around the mid 1800’s, a time when there was increasing tension between religion and science. This friction and unease plays a significant role in the narrative, having a notable effect on the characters, in particular, Gwen Carrick and her relationship with her sister, Euphemia. Gwen is inspired by the works of Charles Darwin whilst Euphemia is a firm believer in spiritualism and her own ability to communicate with the dead.
The narrative consists of many twists and turns, opening in the year 1866 with a newspaper article revealing the murder of Edward Scales, a fellow science enthusiast whom Gwen initially meets on a beach in her home village of Helford Passage, Cornwall. The reader is then transported seven years earlier to the year of this meeting and through the course of the novel, is tantalised with morsels of information that slowly begin to coalesce as the narrative progresses, with supplementary clues dispensed relating to the alleged murder of Edward. Lea mixes romance and crime fiction skilfully as the reader is teased throughout the novel and drawn into the initially passionate relationship which had developed between Edward and Gwen. Yet, it is Gwen who is accused of his murder. This interesting combination of romance and crime fiction genres is part of what makes the narrative so enjoyable. As the reader watches the blossoming relationship between the couple, they are interrupted intermittently with more information on the murder trial, reminders that Edward’s death is to come. The newspaper insights into the trial for his murder see the reader almost take on the role of detective, as s/he attempts to identify the true culprit and also what motives s/he might have. Although the reader is aware that it is Gwen on trial, it is a ‘Mrs Pemberton’ that is in the dock.
Gwen Carrick stands out as a very prominent female character in the novel, independent and headstrong, and through her, feminist themes are explored. At the beginning of the novel, she is young and naïve, her main reason for travelling with Edward being that she would not have to suffer the weeks of separation from her lover. Yet, her infatuation with him slowly diminishes and the restrictions Edward places on her contribution to scientific discoveries irritates her. Gwen wants to be treated as nothing less than an equal to Edward and begins, in secret, to take note of her own observations of experiments, believing that these are more credible than anything Edward has produced.
The novel is focalised through a multitude of characters, yet the plot is tightly focused on the relationship between Gwen and Edward. We follow the initial ‘rare passion’ that rapidly defuses into disinterest and, finally, hatred. The couple elope to Brazil with the intention of making great scientific discoveries together, yet secrets between the two and the interference of Euphemia cause the relationship to come to a devastating and unhappy end. A variety of minor characters are introduced, gradually revealing more and more about the main protagonists, allowing readers to piece together the pair’s separate histories, in particular, that of Edward Scales. Readers will be kept surprised and intrigued until the novel’s end; the somewhat capricious nature of the story and also characters’ unpredictability are aspects of the novel which are particularly enjoyable and engaging.
The Specimen, Lea’s debut novel, is wonderfully written and an absorbing read. Whether you are in the county of Cornwall, England or the exotic tropical setting of Para, Brazil, it is difficult not to want to read on. It is so much more than a simple crime novel. The skilful combining of genres enriches the reader’s enjoyment and The Specimen’s intense, multi-layered characters draw the reader into the heart of the narrative.