x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Book Review: An innocent abroad

Sanjida O'Connell, a scientist and presenter of British nature programmes, has a sideline writing romantic novels which serve as a Trojan horse for her latest enthusiastic research projects.

Sanjida O'Connell, a scientist and presenter of British nature programmes, has a sideline writing romantic novels which serve as a Trojan horse for her latest enthusiastic research projects. In Theory of Mind, a primatologist uses her work with chimps as a lens through which to examine her relationship with a TV producer. In The Naked Name of Love, a 19th-century Jesuit botanist, faith shaken by Darwin's recently published works, travels across central Asia and falls in love with a female shaman.

O'Connell returns to the 1860s (and the library) for her third novel, based on the diaries of the actress Fanny Kemble. Her heroine is Emily Harris, a British actress who marries a southern gentleman while touring America. Too late, Emily is appalled to discover that her husband keeps 700 slaves on a flyblown plantation. Opening as a kind of humourless Edith Wharton pastiche ("Charles Brook had been correct: Central Park was indeed spectacular beneath its frozen winter mantle"), the novel quickly takes a darker turn as Emily's efforts to help the slaves are quietly frustrated at every turn. Meanwhile, civil war looms...