by AN Wilson, Atlantic Books, £16.99

This brilliant novel by AN Wilson concerns the Enlightenment, illustrated in the life of George Forster, a minor historical character of whom few of us may have heard.

As a youth, George, with his father, sails with Captain Cook on the Resolution to the South Seas. George helps to record the new species that his father catalogues. Afterwards, we follow George home to Germany, through his unhappy marriage, and into his involvement with the French Revolution.

Wilson could have written a biography of George, but that would not have been such fun as this novel, which excels not just as history, but also as comedy and tragedy.

In one life we see many contradictions. George starts as a perfect exemplar of enlightened virtue, a man of science, a careful recorder of phenomena, a discoverer of new worlds, who sails to fresh horizons. But he ends up, without ever having lost his essential goodness of heart, involved in the narrow world of Robespierre and Marat. How on earth did it come to this?

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