The Great Unknown

Norton. Feb. 2020. 336p. ISBN 9781324003366. $26.95. F
Set in the mid-1800s, this charming tale begins when lovely Constantia MacAdam is hired as a wet-nurse for baby Charlie, the youngest child in a large Scottish household, after one of her own twin infants dies. She fits right in with this erudite family; Mr. Chambers is a journal editor in Edinburgh, and Charlie’s older siblings are all clever. MacAdam is a pseudonym; the family doesn’t know much about her past, and neither does Constantia: her mother hailed from nearby Northumberland but died under strange circumstances in India when Constantia was ten, and her father’s identity is a mystery. Meanwhile, everyone in the Chamberses’ literary circle, including Constantia, is reading a controversial treatise on evolution, one that presages Charles Darwin’s. Fortuitous coincidences occur as Constantia investigates her past on a journey to rejoin her husband, who is in hiding for political reasons.
VERDICT With its Victorian setting, elaborate plot, and score of quirky characters, this work is delightfully Dickensian yet maintains a modern sensibility. Kingman (Not Yet Drown’d) taps into an astounding breadth of knowledge, from stonemasonry and paleontology to Scottish history and politics, plus religion and metaphysics. Highly recommended.

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