I followed the Barnes book with another story about a search for a stuffed bird. No post-modern dictionaries or bestiaries here, simply good writing. No choppy sentences or jump cuts between characters, just good story-telling. I was completely enthralled by this book, racing through it and, yes, caring deeply about all the characters, heroes and villains alike.
The bird in question here is the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta. The naturalist on Captain Cook's second voyage to the South Seas brought back this stuffed bird, the only one of its kind ever seen, and presented it to Joseph Banks, who had been the naturalist on Cook's first voyage. Then it disappeared. So much is true. Two hundred years later, the chase is on to find this valuable specimen.
As in Byatt's Possession two storylines are intertwined, one in the present and one in the past. Davies does an excellent job of maintaining the focus in each and switching from one to the other without losing this finicky reader. In the present, we follow Fitz, a taxidermist and lapsed conservationist, and his young student boarder, Katya, as they race to find the bird before two other groups, who both intend to sell it to a pharmaceutical company planning to pull the bird apart in order to copyright its DNA. In the 1770s, we follow Joseph Banks himself as he struggles to weave together the different threads of his life: the woman he loves, the renown he wants, and the work he cannot relinquish.
Without spinning it out unnecessarily Davies gives each scene the time and space it needs to develop fully. Thus, he makes each scene so intense, so vivid, that thinking of them is like remembering my own past. And, as in the Barnes book, Davies is concerned with what we can make of the shreds of the past. And with where we run out of ways to knot them together, leaving them to fall apart in our hands.
Curious as to why it only took one paragraph for me to be fascinated with Fitz, I went back to the beginning. I already knew he was a taxidermist from the chapter heading, so wasn't surprised to find him working on a dead owl, but intrigued, certainly. The description of the December evening, the heat from the lamp, the feel of the skull and the skin made it seem as though I were there in the room with him. I felt Fitz's cautious elation when his difficult task seemed to be working and his irritation when the phone's ringing interrupted him. Remembering the practical jokes callers often pull on him, he decides not to answer it, only to change his mind out of concern that it might be Katya's mother trying to reach her.
So, what do we have here? His obvious competence at and concern for his work put me on his side immediately—I love reading about people at work—but it was his consideration for Katya and her mother that made me like him. The sensory descriptions and touch of humor pulled me into the scene, and the questions raised (Why is someone calling a taxidermist late at night? Who is Katya? Will the owl be ruined?) pushed me to read on.
And read I did. I'll certainly be looking for more books by this author.