Key Research Interests

As an academic with an early specialism in Victorian literature I published several books of literary criticism and cultural history including a book called The Fabrication of the Victorian Femme Fatale, a collection of essays on Tennyson, a co-authored monograph on Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and articles on Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad, H.D., Virginia Woolf, Carlyle and aspects of Victorian science and Victorian poetry.

In 2003, I began to experiment with creative non-fiction and life writing, publishing several non-fiction books including a partial biography of Darwin called Darwin and the Barnacle, (Faber, 2003), a cultural history of the oyster and most recently a 2,000-year history of the idea of evolution called Darwin’s Ghosts (Bloomsbury, 2012). 

In 2007, I published my first novel Ghostwalk. Part historical thriller, part ghost story, set in both seventeenth century and contemporary Cambridge, it weaves together fiction and non-fiction and explores scientific ideas from Issac Newton's work on optiics and alchemy to contemporary ideas in neuroscience and quantum physics. It was published in the US (Random House) and the UK (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) and translated into 14 different languages including Chinese, Russian, Hebrew and Serbian. It reached the bestseller lists in Italy, America and China and was shortlisted for the Jelf Group First novel Award and the Author's Club First Novel Award. 

My second historical novel, The Coral Thief, grew out of the research I had begun on the history of evolutionary ideas for Darwin’s Ghosts. Part adventure story, part history of science, part coming of age story, part alternate history, The Coral Thief is set in Paris in 1815 just after the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo; it was serialized on Radio Four's Book at Bedtime in January 2010.

Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists, a book of narrative history, was published by Bloomsbury in 2012 and Random House in America. Ten years in the making, it spans 2,200 years of world history tracing the idea of evolution from Aristotle to Darwin. It shows how new ideas about the origins of species came to emerge in particular moments in history and in particular places from the sea lagoons of ancient Lesbos to the market places of ninth-century Basra to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Among other things it explores the role of the creative imagination in scientific enquiry.

My family memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Christian cult and the importance of reading as a way of finding a way out of its long shadow, In the Days of Rain, came out in June 2017, in the US, the UK and Australia. It is currently being translated into German for publication in 2018. It won the Costa Biography Prize in 2017, and is being made into a film.

I am currently working on both a novel and a book of creative non-fiction, funded by a Leverhulme research award, based on the mystery of the four hundred years in which the city of Londinium lay derelict after the Romans left Britain in c.410AD.

ID: 79167