Set on a small island near Mauritius, the two main characters, Fran and Christian, with their very different backgrounds, work with endangered bird species.
The language of the novel is clear as the blue skies of the landscape and subtle as the often fleeting thought processes that are caught in the finest of meshwork. Sometimes there are words or phrases that are echoed, with the resonance of poetry and birdsong.
She is sitting on the battered wicker sofa on the veranda.....Mosquitoes alight on her arms, and she chases them, slapping herself............. If other, later images come, willy-nilly, to the veranda on Egret Island, Fran chases them, slapping herself. She will not be bitten by memories of intimacy.
The minds of the characters are entered into with subtle psychological insight. Who does not recognize the processes of making choices? The weighing of reasons, the decisions as to relevance, the balancing of values, desires and fears. There is often a knife-edge quality to the decisions the two main characters, Fran and Christian, will make. Because of this there is real uncertainty as to outcome. Imagined futures bloom and wilt, in the minds of the characters as well as the narrative, as the reader is caught up in the delicate processes of thoughts, feelings and actions that make up people's lives.
Then there is the revisiting and revisioning of various experiences from the past of both characters – not simply hauntings or the replaying of old memories - but which are examined in a way that's both accepting of what has happened, and critical – could I have done something different at that point and would it have been better if I had? This kind of scrutiny does allow for insights and changes in the person. But it's the way the process is described, pressing on a painful point here, releasing attachment to another point there, that is so recognizable.
The pasts of Fran and Christian are very different, his as an aid worker in the war in Bosnia, hers in an American university environment. But their paths have led them both to this remote island, living with birds and animals and with few human contacts. Both their pasts contain pain and loss and contribute to who they are now, in a way we recognize as our own thoughts of the past weave in and out of our present.
The story carries the reader along because in its relating of the past, the challenges of the present, and the enormous hope for the future [for the endangered birds, but the human characters are also vulnerable] - you do not know what the outcome will be. More than once, I felt lulled into a sense of – this is how things are going to turn out - before something unexpected completely alters the course of the story.
It presents big questions, as the circumstances of the characters' lives require that they are addressed – about evolutionary theories, the roles of reason and randomness in our lives. The very way the narrative twists and turns gives the feeling it's trying to evade capture or being pinned down into anything as clear cut as an idea or theory regarding human life. These evasions which sometimes have natural causes, like a cyclone, bulwark possibility and the unexpected rather than leading to any easily foreseeable outcome.
Imagine, he will say to Fran, the Piazza del Duomo in Milan covered in cooing pink birds; is it the grayness or the commonness of the usual variety we begrudge? When you see a pink pigeon you imagine life differently, you imagine possibility.
Fran looks at him, raises her eyebrows and says, that's what this place is about, possibility.
It questions the decisions we make in our lives, the parts played by luck or intention, fate or determination.
Fran looks from the rubbish bin to the girls and back again. As if she could pretend there were no postcard, no knowledge. The way it has already been for ten forgetful days. Not so much a second chance as a way of changing the switches, and derailing fate. Because she can hide or destroy a postcard; it is only a small thing, easily tossed into a rubbish bin...........But her right to happiness? Must she toss that into the rubbish bin? She has a few minutes, before she sees him. A few minutes to plead with fate and conscience, and strike a deal.
It questions the nature of human relationships, what people might desire or expect from each other, different kinds of love, how we cope with loss, and that most vital yet subtle of all relationships, the one with ourself, which solitude requires us to engage with.
The language and descriptions evoke the dream-like beauty of the island. And while memories and fantasies of past and future are explored, it seems to me that whether background or spotlighted, there is a celebration of the wonder of the lived present.
An uplifting and inspiring book.
Alison is also the translator of many books from French including The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
and Consolation by Anna Gavalda which I wrote about in a post last year.