I received not one but ten copies of this book as part of a prize pack from a book club contest from Allen & Unwin. I’m part of a sort of feminist-fantasy book club, and although this isn’t a fantasy book at all, it does have quite a few feminist themes. The prize pack also included a couple of bottles of wine, some snacks, some book club questions and some French-inspired recipes. I also got to meet the author at a local event, so I was very lucky to get my copy of the book signed as well.
“Into the World” by Stephanie Parkyn is a historical fiction novel based on the life of Marie-Louise Girardin, a real French woman.. In the novel, Marie-Louise has just given birth to a baby boy who, widowed, she cannot afford to keep. Estranged from her family and entangled in the politics of the French Revolution, Marie-Louise makes the drastic decision to give up her son and find work at sea. However, given the attitudes towards women in 18th Century France, Marie-Louise disguises herself a man and finds a job as the ship’s steward on board the Recherche. While the official mission is for two ships to find the missing French explorer La Pérouse who disappeared somewhere near New Holland, Marie-Louise’s ship also carries a number of naturalists looking to study the continent’s unique flora. Marie-Louise befriends the scientists but finds her loyalties torn between them and the officers of the ships, particularly Kermadec, the captain of the second ship. As tensions threaten to boil over, Marie-Louise worries that her secret will be discovered.
This is a difficult book to review. Parkyn has clearly put an enormous amount of research into this book. Her environmental science background meant that the detail of the expedition is meticulously captured and it was very easy to imagine life on the boat and the characters and experiments of the naturalists. The sailors’ reactions to the new plants, animals and people of the Australian continent felt very authentic. Parkyn had a tricky job to depict two trips around the continent and compare first impressions with second impressions, but I think that Parkyn brought that fresh perspective in a clipped, academic style.
Nevertheless, there were quite a few things that I struggled with in this book. Very little has been written about the enigmatic character of Marie-Louise, and I absolutely appreciate that like most historical fiction novels, an author needs a bit of creative license. Parkyn creates a backstory of intrigue and involvement in the French Revolution which I thought did give a bit more impetus for Marie-Louise’s extreme choice to become a male sailor than simply being an unwed mother. A revolutionary so bold as to dress as a man and go sailing around the world to undiscovered lands, I was expecting Marie-Louise to be brave and canny.
However, I felt like the character of Marie-Louise in this book is very timid and unsure. She is constantly second-guessing herself and while I appreciate how nerve-wracking it would have been for the real Marie-Louise, I really would have liked to have seen a much more bold and confident character to match those incredible feats. Any sailor who hopped on a ship to travel uncharted seas would have had to have been brave; a woman hiding her identity, doubly so. I really wanted Marie-Louise to show that kind of gumption.
Something else I was surprised about was the ending. Without giving away too much, Parkyn chose to end the story differently to the way the real Marie-Louise’s story ended. I can understand the temptation to give her an uplifting ending, but I think that maybe the real story would have given Marie-Louise the hero’s ending that I think she deserved. I also think that while there was a huge amount of historical detail, I would have liked a bit more French culture.
Anyway, this was a really interesting story about a woman who had a fascinating life but unfortunately did not leave much of a trace of her incredible adventures behind. Parkyn brings Marie-Louise’s unique story to life, and though I didn’t necessarily agree with all the choices she made for Marie-Louise, I thought it was a very well-researched book.