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All art is unstable. It's meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author, There is no authorative active voice. There are only multiple readings. David Bowie, 1995

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Orchids and the Orient: a riveting Victorian adventure

The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller

This exotic Victorian story leads us from a small English village into the dangerous depths of China. Seventeen year old Elodie Buchanan takes on the responsibility of accompanying her father to China to hunt for a particular orchid, the Queen's Fancy in order to restore the family fortunes. Mind you, her father is unaware that she has joined him on the clipper Osprey, fortuitously aided by Alexander Balashov the second mate, until near to the end of the voyage.   

Mr. Buchanan returned from his last plant hunt in the orient a broken man, having been caught up in the end of the Opium Wars with China in 1860 at Tien-Tsin, where he appears to have been captured and tortured. He's refused to see his family, has hidden out in a cottage in Kew Gardens, avoiding all. Unfortunately, as he didn't fulfill his orchid finding contract with the malevolent collector Mr. Erasmus Pringle, he is being forced to return to China (the last place he can bear to be) to save his family, his wife, Elodie and her nine sisters, from the poorhouse and himself from debtor's prison.
There is so much that happens in this story. I really don't want to reveal it all. I must however mention the Victorian attitudes to orchids, which is hilarious in today's context. An unfit topic for women apparently, due to the similarity to male genitalia. What! We all scream indignantly, you have to be joking! No joke, just Victorian morality and fears. A fact that plays out in Elodie's village life and opinions of the busy body village spokespersons.
The action continues in China with a heightening tension that carries us forward. Elodie and her father are accompanied by Alex and a Chinese girl Ching Lang in their search for the rare orchid. Their party is dogged by serious troubles in the form of a dangerous plant hunter, Luther Duffey, that Elodie had the misfortune to encounter in England. 
I really enjoyed this story. It was unusual in its subject matter and fascinating in its execution, combining far flung places, other cultures and peoples, mystery and adventure with a touch of romance, set in Victorian times. For some reason I actually was not aware that this fell into the YA orbit. To me it's a story that moves beyond that narrow category. A pity to confine it in this way.
At the end of the novel is a collection of very succinct and interesting notes about matters encountered in the novel and a most Impressive bibliography.

A NetGalley ARC


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