Book Review: The Priest and the Lily

I came across Sanjida Kay when I reviewed her first psychological thriller, Bone by Bone. Following subsequent interviews and events I became aware that this was not her fiction debut, that she had already published a number of other works under the name Sanjida O’Connell. I purchased Angel Bird as it was set in Ireland and enjoyed the tale. When she contacted me to offer a review copy of The Priest and the Lily – a new edition of historical fiction originally published by John Murray – I was happy to take the book.

Set in 1865, just a few years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the protagonist of the story is Joseph, a young Jesuit priest. Although firm in his faith, Joseph has a keen interest in evolutionary biology. He works as a scientist at Bristol’s Royal Botanical Gardens, retaining links with the British Museum. For years he has been plotting and planning in hope of gaining funding for a foreign expedition. He has long dreamt of travelling to Outer Mongolia – an interest inspired by boyhood stories of Genghis Khan – and returning with specimens of previously uncategorised flowers, thereby gaining him the respect of revered members of the Royal Society.

From the prologue, readers will be aware that Joseph returned from a perilous journey across Mongolia with a rare lily that brought him the kudos he had so desired. The remaining story is of the expedition, with some backstory to explain why Joseph developed his faith and scientific bent.

The first chapter details his crossing of the border with China, necessary to reach the landlocked destination. It is a shocking opening – a depiction of cruelty that lays bare the attitudes of many men he will encounter. Although distressing to read it provides effective scene setting.

Mongolia harbours a nomadic people whose culture includes a welcome for strangers. Joseph travels with a Mongolian horseman, Tsem – who will manage the pack horses necessary to carry provisions and equipment – and a translator, Mendo, who is a Buddhist monk. The three men, although very different in outlook and ambition, will become friends.

As they travel across the remote mountains and plains, Joseph collects specimens of plants and creatures – killing as he feels necessary. He regards this as important for science. Others regard it as theft. Joseph’s arrogance is that of an Englishman abroad, comfortable in his right to be there. He is willing to learn the language and fit in with cultural miens but regards his work as valuable and worth the plundering of locale.

As well as staying in tents used as shelter by the indigenous population, the trio benefit from hospitality in Buddhist lamaseries. These are under increasing threat from a Warlord whose army proves brutal and pitiless.

Having long regarded Buddhists as peaceable, it was shocking to learn of some of their practices – towards young boys placed in their care and the creatures in their surroundings.

The dangers encountered on the journey – hunger, weather, terrain and vicious people – are not the only aspects that challenge Joseph’s equilibrium. Mendo causes him to ponder aspects of his beliefs.

Events conspire to place Joseph in the care of a small mountain community. Here he meets a beautiful woman, Namuunaa, who will test his vows of chastity. He prays to his god to be delivered from evil, but who in this story is evil?

Although the various dangers added to the sense of place, offering details on the manner in which the Mongolian population lived, the long journeying occasionally felt, well, long. Joseph’s admiration for Namuunaa focused on her beauty – I could have done without the detail of their sexual activities. She was remarkable in so many other ways.

I would emphasise though that the story told has lingered, particularly the imagery. The author is skilled at touching the senses – from her vivid descriptions of the filth of Bristol’s crowded and noisy dockside to the difficulties encountered traversing the Gobi desert. The reader can almost taste and smell each location alongside Joseph as he struggles to adapt and survive.

The story took me to a place I had never given much thought to and brought it to life, adding depth by exploring the attitudes of scientists and religions in a time of change. At its heart is a story of people whose lives have been shaped by their need to adapt to personal tragedy. A tale of choices made and the cost of ambition that proved an interesting and rewarding read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: The Great Naturalists

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Natural history, taken in all its extent, is an immense history, it embraces all the objects with which the universe presents us.”

I read The Great Naturalists from cover to cover which, with hindsight, may not be the best way to appreciate the content it offers. Instead, it could be dipped into as a reference for those wishing to acquire a brief overview of the work done by the thirty-seven men and two women who have been included within its pages. They are all European or, later, American. I am left wondering about the contributions made to the natural sciences through the ages by those born elsewhere.

Following an introduction the book is divided into four sections: The Ancients, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, and The 19th Century. Each section presents potted histories of various pioneers and thinkers whose work contributed to moving knowledge forward in that era. As well as detailing: place of birth, family circumstances, and education; entries include the subject’s key publications and achievements. Writing style is rather dry and factual, perhaps an odd comment to make about a work of non-fiction but this affected engagement – the format became repetitive given the way I was reading.

Aside from the science there are other nuggets of interest, such as the irony that the prestigious Royal Society was formed from a group of scholars “encouraged by the scientifically sympathetic regime of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.” Mostly though each entry concentrates on the gradual development of natural history into what is now a range of specialisms. It took centuries for acceptance that “all living things were not made for man”. Religious dogma is shown to have limited wider thinking until relatively recently.

The discoveries detailed were made through travel, observation, illustration and, in some instances, experimentation. Nature was regarded as existing to benefit man, and plants were initially studied for their medicinal properties rather than purely for interest. Once systems were developed for naming and classification, knowledge could be disseminated and built upon. There was often a degree of competitiveness between contemporaries. 

As well as the many published books and their associated illustrations, botanic gardens and collections held in museums proved useful to those coming later. By recording, measuring and collecting on voyages throughout the world there was a gradual increase in understanding of the existence of plant and animal species along with their development and interdependencies. 

I was amused by the entry for Comte de Buffon who, unusually, wrote his books in a populist style, one that was sneered at by the scientific establishment – the ‘educated people’. He was even (gasp of horror) read and enjoyed by women!

“It would be easy to accept the criticisms of Buffon’s academic contemporaries and dismiss the Histoire Naturelle as a purely popularising work, empty and puffed up, with little real scientific value. But through his work Buffon truly changed the face of natural history in a way no academic had done before.”

There are only the briefest mentions of the politics and history of each era. Likewise, there is little judgement of the hunting and dissecting of creatures to attain a knowledge that will be of no benefit to them. 

Many of the naturalists included were independently wealthy or had wealthy patrons eager to enhance private collections. Knowledge of nature was sought without concern for the effects of such activity on location and native species. As ecology became better understood man’s place, along with his origins, finally began to be questioned. 

From Aristotle through to Darwin, the various theories naturalists pondered and posited are presented. None worked in isolation – attributions do not always recognise this. Of Darwin it is written,

“It was never enough for him simply to observe, he needed always to find the explanations underlying even the most commonplace phenomena.”

 Although a great thinker he relied on others to provide him with examples he could study to formulate his proofs.

Any Cop?: The book provides an interesting glimpse into the changing nature of scientific endeavours through the ages. It offers a reminder that accepted facts can change as new discoveries are made.  


Jackie Law