Owls and leopards and dogs – oh my! My animal-themed reading project continues. I’m more than halfway through in that I’m in the middle of quite a few more books, but finishing and reviewing them all before the 3rd of September may still prove to be a challenge.
Timbuktu by Paul Auster (1999)
My first from Auster – and not, I take it, representative of his work in general. Never mind, though; I enjoyed it, and it was a good follow-up to Fifteen Dogs. Like the Alexis novel, this gives an intimately imagined dog’s perspective, taking seriously the creature’s whole life story. The canine protagonist is Mr. Bones, who’s accompanied his mentally unstable writer owner, Willy G. Christmas, from New York City down to Baltimore, where, one August Sunday, Willy wants to find his old high school English teacher before he dies.
What took me by surprise is that Auster doesn’t stick with Willy, but has Mr. Bones move on to two more living situations: first he’s the secret friend of 10-year-old Henry Chow, whose parents run a Chinese restaurant, then he’s a family pet in suburban Virginia. Although his English comprehension is advanced, he isn’t able to reproduce its sounds like some of the dogs in Fifteen Dogs can, so he can’t tell these new owners his real name and has to accept being called first “Cal” and then “Sparky.” In dreams he still hears Willy’s voice. He assumes Willy is now in the afterlife (“Timbuktu”), and longs to rejoin him.
The novel is tender as well as playful and funny – I loved the passage where Mr. Bones wakes up to pain but doesn’t realize he’s been castrated:
How was he to know that those missing parts had been responsible for turning him into a father many times over? Except for his ten-day affair with Greta, the malamute from Iowa City, his romances had always been brief—impetuous couplings, impromptu flings, frantic rolls in the hay—and he had never seen any of the pups he had sired. And even if he had, how would he have been able to make the connection? Dick Jones had turned him into a eunuch, but in his own eyes he was still the prince of love, the lord of the canine Romeos, and he would go on courting the ladies until his last, dying breath. For once, the tragic dimension of his own life eluded him.
Owl Sense by Miriam Darlington (2018)
Initially the idea was to see all of Britain’s resident owls, but as often happens, the project expanded until Darlington was also taking trips to Serbia to find a Long-Eared Owl, Finland for a Eurasian Eagle Owl, and France for a Pygmy Owl; and going on a fruitless twitch to see a vagrant Snowy Owl in Cornwall. Each chapter considers a different species and includes information on its anatomy, geographical distribution, conservation status, and any associated myths and anecdotes (The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel does much the same thing, but with less richness). She has closer encounters with some than with others: when volunteering with the Barn Owl Trust, she gets to ring chicks and collects pellets for dissection. But even the most fleeting sightings can be magical.
The book also subtly weaves in what was happening in Darlington’s life at the time, especially her son Benji’s struggles. On the autistic spectrum, he suddenly started having physical problems that were eventually explained by non-epileptic seizures. I would have welcomed more personal material, but that just speaks to my love of memoir. This feels slightly hurried and not quite as editorially polished as her master work, Otter Country, but it’s still well worth reading if you have any interest in birds or nature conservation. (I’ve only seen two owls in the wild: Barn and Tawny.)
Fillets of Plaice by Gerald Durrell (1971)
This is a pleasant miscellany of leftover essays that didn’t make it into any of Durrell’s other books. The best is “The Birthday Party,” about an incident from the Corfu years: Larry insisted on taking the fridge along on Mother’s birthday outing to an island, and their boat ran out of petrol. In “A Transport of Terrapins,” teenage Gerry works as a lowly pet shop assistant in London even though he knows twice as much as his boss; and meets other eccentric fellows, such as a bird collector and a retired colonel who has a house full of model figures for war gaming.
“A Question of Promotion” is set on one of the animal-collecting expeditions to Cameroon and turned me off a little with its colonial attitude: Durrell talks to the natives in condescending pidgin as he helps prepare a feast for the District Commissioner’s visit. In “A Question of Degrees” he visits two hospitals for a cataclysmic nosebleed, while “Ursula” is about a girlfriend who couldn’t open her mouth without uttering a malapropism. Entertaining scraps for diehard fans; if you’re new to Durrell, though, start with My Family and Other Animals and Menagerie Manor.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma (2013)
I’d meant to read Jansma’s debut ever since Why We Came to the City, his terrific novel about five university friends negotiating life in New York City during the recession, came out in 2016. I assumed the leopards of the title would be purely metaphorical – a reference to people not being able to change their inborn nature – and they are, but they’re also surprisingly literal in the one chapter set in Africa.
Jansma’s deliciously unreliable narrator, never named but taking on various aliases in these linked short stories, is a trickster, constantly reworking his life into fiction. He longs to be a successful novelist, but keeps losing his works in progress. We think we know the basics of his identity – he’s the son of a single mother who worked as a flight attendant; he grew up in North Carolina emulating the country club and debutante class; at Berkshire College he met his best friend and rival Julian McGann in creative writing class and fell for Julian’s friend Evelyn, the great unrequited love of his life – but Part II introduces doubt by calling the characters different names. Are these the ‘real’ people, or the narrator’s fictionalized versions?
The characters go on a bizarre odyssey that moves the setting from New York City to Nevada to Dubai to Sri Lanka to Ghana to Iceland to Luxembourg, finally ending up back in the very airport terminal where it started. As I remembered from Why We Came to the City, Jansma interleaves Greek mythology and allusions to other writers, especially F. Scott Fitzgerald. The coy way in which he layers fiction on fiction reminded me of work by John Boyne and Tom Rachman; other recommended readalikes are The Goldfinch and Orchid & the Wasp.
Gael Foess, the antiheroine of Caoilinn Hughes’ debut novel, is a trickster. When we first meet her in Dublin in 2002, the 11-year-old is promptly kicked out of school for trying to sell other girls “virginity pills.” As the years pass we see her con her way into a London Business School interview, self-assuredly teach a literature class when her professor doesn’t show up, pretend to be a journalist to get an exclusive interview, and use deception to try to boost the careers of both her mother, Sive (a conductor), and her younger brother, Guthrie (a painter and single dad). In the title metaphor, which refers to an orchid species that lures pollinating wasps, Gael is the seductive flower that gets what it wants. We’re also invited to think of her, with that typically Gael-ic name, as an incarnation of mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn.
The novel spans about nine years: a politically turbulent decade that opens with Iraq War protests and closes with the Occupy movement in New York City. The financial crisis temporarily jolts Gael and Guthrie’s father, Jarleth, a high-flying Barclays banker who leaves the family in 2008. The biblical parable of the talents, which he recounted to Gael when she was a little girl, comes back to resonate: It’s a potent reminder that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life. When Gael gets to New York in 2011, she plans to redress the balance in two paradoxical ways: living in the Occupy camp and taking part in protests; and secretly earning her brother a fortune on his modern art. For even while decrying her father’s privilege, she indulges her own love of fine things; even if ironically, she says that she aspires to be in the 1%, too.
With all her contradictions, Gael is an unforgettable character. I also found Guthrie fascinating. It was serendipitous that I read this novel alongside Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm. Guthrie was a mystically religious child and suffered from seizures, which doctors determined weren’t due to epilepsy but to somatic delusions – psychological rather than physiological. The seizures, ironically, became a boon because they inspire his art: “they’re hallowed and each aura is an absolution – a benison – and not just a synaptic blip.”
Hughes is wonderfully adept at voices, bringing secondary characters to life largely through how they speak. I especially warmed to Art, Sive’s boyfriend, who’s a Yorkshireman; and Harper, Gael’s OCD-plagued flatmate from Las Vegas. Even a brief run-in with American officialdom gets the perfect deadpan rendering: “United States Customs has no interest in surprises. Matter of fact, we hate surprises.” The novel often has a frenetic pace – an energy that’s well matched by the virtuosic use of language, with wordplay, neologisms, and metaphors drawn from art, music and nature. An orchestra is compared to a flock of starlings; a despondent Sive “began to resemble a bass clef.” The Irish are like radishes: “Pink on the outside, white underneath. Speck of mud on their cheeks.” Harper’s entire upbringing is pithily reduced to an “only-childhood of sprinkler weather, window glare and doughnut glazing.” I also loved this tiny poem of a phrase: “sobbing hampers syntax.”
My only real misgiving about the novel is the ending: After Gael comes back from New York, things sort of fizzle out. I even wondered if the story line could have stopped a chapter earlier. But in a way it makes sense to get no tidy closure for our protagonist. Gael is still only 20 years old at the book’s end, so it’s no surprise that she remains a restless wanderer. I certainly wouldn’t object to hearing about her further adventures in a sequel. Hughes is an exciting writer who has rightfully attracted a lot of buzz for her debut, and this is sure to be one of my novels of the year. It’s a perfect follow-on read from Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher, and I’d also recommend it highly to fans of Sweetbitter, The Art of Fielding, The Nix, and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. Watch out for it in two weeks’ time.
Orchid & the Wasp will be published by Oneworld in the UK on June 7th. It’s not out in the USA until July 10th (Hogarth). My thanks to Margot Weale for a proof copy for review.