Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews


Jonathan Raban
Picador (Oct. 2003) 311 pages
ISBN: 0 330 41961 7

reviewed by Ann Skea

I should say from the start that I am a great fan of Jonathan Raban's writing. I have collected his books over the years, have just re-read Badlands for its insight into American history and life, and I found Passage to Juneau fascinating. But all these books are travel books, closely based on fact. Perhaps this is why I was disappointed with Waxwings, which is a novel.

Admittedly, Tom Janeway, the main character in the book, has more than a passing resemblance to Jonathan Raban. But this is fiction, and although it is well-written and I enjoyed it in a mild way, I was never as engaged by it as I have been with Raban's earlier books. It's just a slice of life. And, as the car-sticker says, "shit happens." For Tom, it is like a visitation of Waxwings. They appear out of the blue, you grab your binoculars to get a good look at them, your kid is unimpressed and just gets on with his life, and the next time you look, they have gone. And all the berries have been stripped from your tree.

One of Tom's "waxwings" is an illegal immigrant, "Chick," who turns up on his doorstep and offers to renovate his house for him. It's an offer Tom can't refuse, but Chick and his team of Mexican contractors (also illegal immigrants) vanish halfway through the project.

Meanwhile, Tom's wife Beth decides to buy herself a condo and move out. Tom comes under suspicion in a missing child case. And Finn, his son, is expelled from pre-school for non-conformist and unruly behavior. Tom's eight-year idyll as a British immigrant (legal) to Seattle unravels almost as quickly as Chick's (illegal) fortunes begin to flourish.

Tom is an amiable, self-absorbed, unworldly writer, author of two best-selling books and teacher of Victorian Literature and The Writing Programme at a Seattle university. His house is a reflection of his own muddled background and his unambitious complacency, and as renovations begin, then falter, leaving it half dismantled, it comes to reflect his life ever more closely. Beth, who chooses to move into a light, bright, modern condo, is as modern and bright as her new home. She is ambitious and innovative, too, determined to make her mark in a new, computer-based, real-estate marketing business. Their separation is quite civil, and they each deal with it in their own civilized ways. Finn, too, seems to take it all in stride.

All in all, this is a realistic picture of a fragment of life, but there is little drama. At times, Tom lectures us on Victorian literature and draws some amusing parallels, but his life is rather like those books: a bit old-fashioned, a bit slow, and not compatible with the fast-moving, commercial world of modern Seattle. Raban has written a pleasant and amiable book, and he has written it well. No doubt it says something about values in our world and in literature. But I was left at the end thinking, "OK, that's life. So what?"


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