Tuesday, March 6, 2012
The Conjurer's Bird
Author: Martin Davies
I received about three requests to read this book. I don't usually like many pop-culture classics, and this one was surprisingly ordinary for being so recommended to me. I guess I shouldn't have been direly upset by that- after all, the Twilight books were gushed to me daily.
The Conjurer's Bird is an amusing way to pass the time. It's definitely not a gripping thriller on the caliber of Stephen King or Dan Simmons, although it might be a step above Dean Koontz. Martin Davies has unearthed an extremely interesting piece of history and wrapped it up in a somewhat interesting novel. Too bad none of it's true. As it stands, Davies tells the story of a character who is not particularly interesting who is investigating the story of one who is.
Based on the disappearance of the bird known to ornithologists (scientists who study birds) only as the "Mysterious Bird of Ulieta," The Conjurer's Bird tells both the story of its original disappearance and the modern-day search for it by Fitz, a taxidermist, and his tenant, Katya. Fitz is introduced in an interesting way- I mean, how many taxidermists do you know?- but soon becomes a dull, two-dimensional character. There are one or two spikes of intrigue later in the story, but even those are predictable and boring if you've ever read Sherlock Holmes.
However, Davies spends half the novel in a very unique approach to the mystery. According to history, the bird disappeared from the collection of one Joseph Banks, an 18th century naturalist, never to be seen again. Every other chapter in this novel is spent exploring Banks' background, his mistress known to history only as Miss B, and the fictional story of what happened to the bird. It's told only in pronouns (he and she), but we always know exactly who Davies is referring to. The language is beautiful, and the story wraps beautifully into actual historical documents, which makes it more believable and fascinating than other historical fiction.
However, this book only fits into the background with other novels rather than standing out. Despite the 380-page length of the book, Davies seems to rush through the plot in an attempt to tell two parallel stories. During the tale of Banks and Miss B, he relates emotions and motivations in deep, moving, descriptive language; in the story of Fitz, he hardly scratches the surface, creating an impenetrable hero whom we barely get attached to before the story ends.
Banks himself seems to be the central character, although Davies has the unfortunate habit of introducing too many unimportant side characters and name-dropping. He includes a lot of minor scenes that don't serve to develop the characters any more, which also clouds the book with useless information. For example, he includes the mention of the search for many works of a botanical painter called Roitelot, but these feel almost peripheral, despite their claim to importance in the story.
Altogether, the character we most end up knowing is Miss B, who doesn't even have a real name. Through most of the book, she is just referred to as "she." Davies understands and unifies her character the most, leaving us with a clear impression of just who she is, despite her invisibility to history. Davies has created a memorable character, both through her quiet words and lack of identity.
Altogether, this book is an interesting week-long read. I got my copy at the library; I wouldn't recommend buying it if you can avoid it. As a general rule, I don't buy mystery books- once they're read once, they're spoiled- except for Sherlock Holmes, whom I love from the bottom of my heart. But if you really feel attached to the story, or if you're an ornithologist yourself, you can get the Kindle copy for $9.99. The hardback is $24.00 on the list price, but Barnes&Noble has its list price up for $4.50. Not a terrible waste of money.
As always, keep reading. You're already more intelligent than those who don't.