On the face of it, The Fossil Artist is about the uncovering of a forty year old mystery; the disappearance of Russ Codron’s father, paleo-anthropologist Barak Codron. However, the deeper mystery that Russ has to unravel is why he finds it so difficult to connect with his 7 year old son, Luc, and why his marriage is going through a barren phase. Sifting through memories that have been triggered by the discovery of the mummified remains of his father, he is forced to confront events that have remained buried for all these years. Just as his father toiled over archaeological digs looking for clues to determine the origin of man, so Russ has to dig in his own mind to learn about himself. In allowing his illusions about his father to be shattered, he may be able to emerge from his shadow.
The novel begins by diving right in; Russ discovers through a newspaper article that the police believe evidence found with the mummified remains of Barak Codron in a remote cave on the West Coast point to him being a mass murderer. Despite not having seen his father since he was thirteen years old, Russ is sure this cannot be true and he goes to see the police. Russ is struggling with various issues in his life but this news sends his anxiety levels rocketing. His wife is an artist, in the final stage of preparing for an exhibition in Johannesburg. There is already tension between them, caused partly by Russ’s inability to cope with his son, Luc, who is a strange child somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and partly due to his inability to have sex with his wife, Beck. She has been urging him to explore the underlying psychological reasons for this but he refuses. She has been convinced for quite some time that his father’s disappearance from his life in his teenage years is the root cause of his problems. They also have a sixteen year old daughter, Savannah.
Beck and Russ are both well-formed and interesting characters. She is feisty, outspoken, passionate and talented. She feels let down by Russ and tongue-lashes him frequently but is also supportive when he is faced with this crisis. I would find myself thinking, ‘No, don’t speak to him like that; you’ll achieve a better response with a different approach”; when the reader starts talking to the characters, it is often a sign of a good book.
Russ is an optometrist, which is quite ironic when one considers his refusal to see certain things. His self-deprecatory inner voice shows his insecurity and frustration as well as his sometimes inappropriate thoughts which include imagining fondling one of his patient’s breasts and unwelcome visualisations of his daughter having sex with her boyfriend. As well as being amusing, this technique helps one empathise with the character.
The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to Russ’s childhood when, even at the tender age of six, he used to accompany his father on digs near Krugersdorp where they lived. He had hero-worshipped his father and feels inadequate as he can never measure up to this larger than life figure of a man. Three notebooks discovered with the remains also play an important part as it is through them that Russ learns more about his father’s past and his secrets. The world of palaeontology described, from the discovery of the fake Piltdown man and the effects of this through the twentieth century, are very interesting. The writer’s use of this and Barak Codron’s part in it is a daring mix of fact and fiction. In case this sounds dry and dusty, it is anything but as there is also action and adventure, as well as crazy scenes, such as when Russ strips naked and walks around the house walking like an ape, as an experiment.
There are many different aspects to this novel that add richness yet do not interfere with the storyline. Russ and Beck both have a Sephardic Jewish background and Beck’s family came from the Belgian Congo. Tante Julia speaks Ladino, an old Sephardic language as did Russ’s father and she is instrumental in translating the notebooks, one of which is written in Ladino.
This novel is a highly satisfactory read brought to life by convincing characters, excellent dialogue and a good balance of emotional upheaval and wit. The storyline is unique and enthralling too. I thoroughly enjoyed it.