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The Fossil Hunter

By Tea Cooper

Tea Cooper introduces us to another delightfully interesting subject in The Fossil Hunter, set in her beloved Wollombi in the Hunter Valley of NSW. In her trademark, the narratives follow two female characters, divided by 75 years – with timelines set in Bow Wow Gorge in 1847 and 1919.

1847- twelve year old, Mellie is sent away with the daughters of her carer to a family friend, to escape the shadow of her father’s execution. It is through Mellie’s eyes we meet Anthea Winstanley – the inimitable middle-aged fossil hunter who inspires Mellie to search for what she terms ‘dragon scales.’

Fossil hunting- palaeontology -had a particularly avid following in Victoria times, and with Darwin’s theories on the origin of the species putting God’s creation in question, many found fame and fortune in unearthing fossils from cliffs and bedrock.

Lyme Regis and Mary Anning of ichthyosaur fame, is referred to in the narrative of PJ - Penelope Jane Martindale, who has returned home with her fiance after they met driving ambulances during the Great War. Although an independent and modern thinking woman, PJ still seeks approval from her Doctor father, and his acceptance that she had nothing to do with the death of her younger brothers– both were killed in France after they ran away to sign up.

The mystery uncovers a trail of mistruths and speculation as PJ and Sam discover a box of labelled fossils and search to determine the truth about what PJ’s brothers had found. Encountering age old rumours regarding missing girls and deadly bunjips, when the pair find the deserted home of Anthea Winstanley, PJ works to put an end to rumours that have perpetuated at Bow Wow Gorge for decades.

I enjoyed the Australian flavour to a subject I have only previously read set in Lyme Regis– and palaeontologist Anthea was a character of great depth and sensitivity. With a slightly haunting quality in the theme, I couldn’t help but have visions of girls in high necked white frocks, lost in the rocks and then forgotten in time.

Thank you to Net Galley for an advanced reader copy.

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