The Fossil Hunter by Téa Cooper

‘It’s blood—bad blood—that’s causing it. A new pinafore and some education ain’t going to change nothing.’

Wollombi, Hunter Valley, NSW 1847 and 1919.

A fossil discovered at London’s Natural History Museum leads Penelope Jane (PJ) Martindale on a journey of discovery. PJ, who left Australia to serve as an ambulance driver in France during the Great War, returns home to her father in 1919. Her father gives her a cold welcome: he blames her for her younger brothers signing up to serve and then both losing their lives during the war. PJ, looking through some of her brothers’ possessions, finds some fossils they had found at Bow Wow Gorge, and she remembers the fossil she discovered at the Natural History Museum.

In 1847, Mellie Vale contracts chicken pox. The last thing she remembers before succumbing to fever is a monster chasing her. Mellie is taken in by Doctor Pearson and his family: returning home is not possible although Mellie is not told why for a while. The Pearson family, trying to help Mellie, send her with their two daughters and their two friends to visit their family friend Anthea Winstanley at her home near Bow Wow Gorge. Anthea is an amateur palaeontologist, and Mellie quickly becomes caught up in the search for fossils.

In 1919, PJ is keen to learn more about Bow Wow Gorge, its fossils, and its connection to Anthea Winstanley. There’s a history about Bow Wow Gorge: apparently people disappeared there 70 years ago, and locals warn people against going there. PJ and her American boyfriend Sam explore, and amongst other mysteries, they discover some bones.

‘The Fossil Hunter’ is an intriguing dual timeline story which takes the reader between the lives of Mellie in 1847 and PJ in 1919. Both time periods have their dark secrets and mysteries, and PJ is determined to find out what really happened in 1847.

I really enjoyed this novel with its focus on natural history and its shifts between the stories of Mellie and PJ. A terrific blend of secrets and mystery spread across 72 years. Another terrific novel from Ms Cooper. Highly recommended to lovers of Australian historical fiction featuring some terrific female characters.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Harlequin Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith