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Saturday, April 24, 2004

Thank you, Mr. Raban

An out-of-the-blue invitation from the distinguished James Demetre of this parish to review Jonathan Raban's second novel, Waxwings for the very edrudite ArtDish, now under his editorial lash.

(Nothing to do with Icarusian falls from grace or meltdown come-uppance for the o'er-weening proud: these are the real feathers, a species of local bird. Rather lovely, I gather, and Mr Raban has done his homework on our ornithology. Apparently, it is now our turn.)

"A timely pleasure to be writing about Jonathan Raban’s second novel, 10 years to the month from when ‘Hunting Mr. Heartbreak’ lured me to swap my adopted home of Hong Kong for Seattle.

‘Waxwings’ takes place against turn-of-the-century Seattle – WTO shenanigans, Alaska Airways crash, that sharp-eyed border guard nailing the sweating terrorist – a lively setting before the cast even assembles.

Such is the clarity of Raban’s prose and page-turning appeal that I care nowt for missing any deeper message or toadying up a dollop of gravitas with some Pseuds Corner interpretation. This is a good read, crying out to be bungled as a movie thanks to Raban’s consummate skill at keeping characters on a tense rein so that regret at leaving one scene is instantly forgotten in eagerness to catch up with the next.

First glimpse is of ‘Chick’, illegal immigrant from Fujian province, hotfooting it down the back alleys of Chinatown. We don’t know how or when, but Chick’s got the wits and the work ethic to make it.

Meanwhile, over on Queen Anne, genial Brit-type fogey Tom Janeway is swanning in a life I rather fancy: teacher of creative writing, local celebrity for growly-bear ramblings on local radio, pleasantly bemused by his new lease of life since moving to the US. (Cue stormy waters ahead)

Where Raban excels is in conveying emotion and experience in deft phrases. Tom gazing on his sleeping son:

“This love, too, was easy – far easier than he ever could have guessed. In London, he’d thought of fatherhood as a burden borne by other men, not his sort of thing at all. Yet in this, as in so much else, what had seemed true there had been proved false here. American alchemy again.”
Nailed in one.

Wifely alchemy also keeps Tom alert. Go-getting Beth is as focused in her 24/7 dot.com firmament as Tom is vague and inspirationally blocked in his yester-London world of Pope, Mayhew and Gissing. Not a marriage to bet on and Raban dismantles it with heart-rending skill.

Richter for this crumbling union is son Finn, Exhibit A for what happens when parents take their eye off the ball and no slouch with precocious utterances that earned me brisk clips round the lug-hole.

There we have them: wily Chinois shinning up the drainpipe of Life to run his own tatterdemalion construction crew; Tom deserted by his Muse and blind to Beth’s jettisoning of a farce for headier oxygen of reality and moneyed independence. As for Janeway fils, a splendid vehicle for authorial merriment at the expense of ADD clichés and behavioral counselors.

A mote of a quibble here with Chick’s easy bandying of the Cantonese insult ‘gwei lo’ (‘ghost’ or ‘devil’ person): this is a strictly Hong Kong Cantonese term, unlikely to be familiar in Fujian Province. ‘Laowei’ (albeit with the less insulting meaning of just ‘foreigner’) is more convincing.

When ‘Chick’ spots the dodgy roof on Château Janeway , we know where that strand of the storyline is headed. Or do we? Raban tacks brilliantly across the plot, to dump Tom in a Kafkaesque nightmare of chief suspect in a missing child rap. All bets off, we’re slap bang in Tom Sharpe country with an investigating officer to have Wilt foaming at the mouth with grumpy admiration.

I make it sound a hodge-podge, which is why the incomparable Mr. Raban is between hard-covers and I’m here pecking away in qwerty-lite.

A triumph of a novel – criminally designed in a face that sets cap Es as a grotesque backward 3, fit only to spell E-coli – that I urge you to buy, one for the good of your own soul, the others to earn impressed gratitude from loved ones. Thank you, Mr. Raban. More fiction, please."

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