Available now in bookstores nationwide.
Thom Conroy is a man of two nations – his homeland of the USA, and his current home of New Zealand – and an academic. That’s at least two things he has in common with his chosen protagonist, Dr Ernst Dieffenbach. Dieffenbach is described on Te Ara as an ‘explorer, naturalist, linguist and writer’ while Wikipedia calls him a ‘physician, geologist and naturalist’. The blurb of Conroy’s book refers to a ‘scientist, explorer, revolutionary, outcast’. So, the fictionalization would seem to take on board both the local and the international, with a little poetic licence to boot.
Regardless of historical accuracy – and a little research suggests that the book is fairly true to life – the vividness of character and landscape that Conroy captures in the novel is rather spectacular.
Conroy has an impressive background in short fiction. For some authors, the shift from short to long format prose is a difficult one – but with The Naturalist, Conroy shows that he is more than up to the task. The novel is divided into sections from different stages of his life and travels, but even as the cast of characters rotate around him, there is still an enduring sense of Dieffenbach’s simultaneous (yet very different) quests – to discover new and wonderful things at the edges of the known world and to find a way home to his family and past in Giessen.
According to Conroy’s website, The Naturalist was originally going to be called Ark of Specimens – and as much as that title is wonderfully evocative (if a little macabre), The Naturalist fits the story that he has told. It is Dieffenbach’s story, and his alone.
Weaving world history and local folklore together with a deft hand for prose, Thom Conroy has written a novel about a New Zealand that is at once familiar and alien. It’s always startling to be reminded how much the landscape of our country has changed in a relatively short time; Dieffenbach’s first voyage from Europe to the South Pacific on the Tory was in 1839.
It has been a very good couple of years for New Zealand historical fiction, and The Naturalist continues that trend. It’s wonderfully written with a beautiful cover design (when there are takahē involved, I’m sold) and leads you on a winding journey through history, nature and Aotearoa.
Reviewed by Briar Lawry, bookseller and publishing student
by Thom Conroy
Published by Vintage