W.W. Norton & Company sent me a new novel ahead of publication, and it has since launched–a couple of weeks ago. The Great Unknown, by Peg Kingman, is one of those books that weaves a compelling tale while also stirring philosophical ponderings. Its protagonist is Constantia MacAdam, and an unusual set of circumstances has landed her in the role of wet nurse in a Scottish family’s home. Constantia nurses their baby along with her own.
Her hosts, the Chambers family, are kind and bright, and the household engages in the norms of 1845. They read the books of the day and engage in impassioned conversation about their reads and political issues. They study scripture. Dinner guests are asked to contribute to the evening’s entertainment. The family’s rented home—a temporary arrangement while their Edinburgh home undergoes repairs—comes with a gardener, who keeps pigeons and takes substantial pride in his created dominion.
Woven into this day-to-day, comfortable family life are mysteries, secrets, and surprises. Why is Constantia so vague about her far-off husband? Why is a man cutting stone under cover of night? And, a central question to the book—who is the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation? While The Great Unknown is fictional, the Vestiges book that plays a central role in in the read is very much real, and presaged Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Constantia also ruminates about a mystery she keeps to herself—who was her father? Not knowing carries a sense of shame for her, and at the same time she wonders why it matters so much—would knowing change the person she is today?
The Vestiges book that stirs up household debate was quite the controversial volume in its day, claiming that all creatures, great and small, came to exist through natural law. This offended many who believed that humans were set apart from all other living things, uniquely guided by the hand of God. Kingman skillfully connects the questions about human origins and beliefs sparked by the book with the details of Constantia’s story—the stone cutter’s find, the search for her family roots, and reunification with her husband in the midst of surprising circumstances. Several coincidences recycle the question of origins and destiny—is everything random? Could there be some sort of plan or is this just the marvelous way that the natural order sometimes works?
Kingman also laces the story with intriguing facts and practices of the time, like the use of homing pigeons to communicate with far-off family, the Chartist movement undertaken by working-class men, and the revolutionary discovery of using fine limestone to make lithographs for printing.
All of this is pleasurable food for thought, all of it painted in a warm and lively story. The Great Unknown is a world to step into, and a world worth some quiet, contemplative moments.