Jonathan Raban's Waxwings
is a canticle for the late 1990s told through the intertwined lives of several Seattlites. In the novel, the city becomes a microcosm of America at the turn of the millennium, and Raban's characters--all in some way tragic "tourists" in the world--are rendered with a compassion that redeems their personal failings.
Thomas Janeway is a British novelist and professor of literature at the University of Washington whose life is coming apart in his adopted home. He deeply loves his four-year-old son, Finn, but his wife, Beth, is caught up in the dot-com explosion, and the couple has grown apart. As Seattle erupts in the WTO riots and terrorist plots, Janeway's life crumbles around him. His wife leaves him, his house becomes a shambles of half-completed reconstruction, and his son is caught fighting in school. When he becomes a "person of interest" in the abduction and possible murder of a local girl, he is put on leave with pay from the university. Yet, Raban does not let Janeway--or any of his characters--wallow in self-pity. They all try to move forward with life, and even Janeway "the suspect" finds sympathetic allies in surprising places.
At one point in the novel, Janeway lectures his students on the "generosity" of V.S. Pritchett, saying that the writer believed "in a general redistribution of verbal wealth, in taking good lines from the haves, and giving them to the have-nots." This "liberal realism" also characterizes Raban's work. Raban treats all of his characters, from Janeway to Finn, with patience and balance. He fully inhabits each and tells fragments of the story from the perspective of Beth, Tom, Finn, and even Tom's illegal-immigrant contractor, Chick. One narrative infuses another, lending the novel a Dickensian universality. Together the disparate voices perfectly capture the particulars of a place, Seattle, at a unique moment in American history. --Patrick O'Kelley
From Publishers Weekly
A Hungarian-born British expatriate settled in dot-com-frenzied Seattle is the bemused protagonist of this inspired jumble of a novel, travel writer Raban's first since 1985's Foreign Land. Tom Janeway is a professor of writing, a novelist and a public radio commentator; his wife, Beth, works for GetaShack.com, a startup providing virtual neighborhood tours for prospective house buyers. They have a four-year-old son named Finn, and they appear content. Behind the happy facade, though, Beth has grown deeply unhappy with her self-absorbed husband, his immersion in books and his pretentious radio voice ("his fucking rolled r's")-she hankers after expensive cars, a bright new condo and honest attention. Unfolding in counterpoint to Raban's chronicle of the rather civilized collapse of their marriage is the story of a shady Chinese immigrant called Chick; he survives a horrific journey to America and becomes an off-the-books contractor who bullies Tom into employing him to renovate their gloomy old house after Beth moves out. Beneath the surface, larger currents are swirling, and Tom is suddenly swept up in them when he goes for a walk on a local nature trail and is misidentified as a suspect in a series of child murders. Chick's unpredictable antics sharpen the sense of menace, while a subplot about an egotistical British novelist who is considering a residency at Tom's college provides effective comic relief. Raban's caustic, affectionate commentary on the manic gyrations of millennial America unites these disparate plot lines, making his novel a wry paean to the cluttered, freewheeling lives led by the motley residents of an immigrant nation.
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