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Audubon's Watch: A Novel Paperback – Bargain Price, October 23, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
John James Audubon is seen through a dark lens in this fictional take on a particularly rocky period in his tumultuous life. Told from the perspective of the ornithologist in his ailing old age, Brown's brooding psychological novel chronicles in complicated, gothic style an episode that has long haunted its protagonist. At the age of 36, Audubon leaves his wife and children behind in Cincinnati and sets off for New Orleans to begin his quixotic life's work, "to identify, observe, and draw every species of this country's winged inhabitants." He secures a position as a tutor on a Louisiana plantation, but his relatively comfortable life is disturbed by the arrival of visitors. Dr. Emile Gautreaux, an anatomist and voyeur "seeking to explain the body's exquisite grandeur," has been eager to meet Audubon, and in fact wishes to become his patron. This is good news, but Audubon is shaken when he sees Dr. Gautreaux's beautiful wife, Myra, step down from their carriage: he has met her before, in less than respectable circumstances. The very night of the couple's arrival, Myra dies suddenly and mysteriously, and in a prolonged scene, Audubon and Dr. Gautreaux stand watch over her corpse. Gautreaux, whose morally compromised life Brown examines meticulously, is as much the protagonist of this novel as Audubon. His and Audubon's guilty secrets, suspicions and shameful desires are given full airing in a story adorned with bird images and mildly graphic sexual encounters. There are few moments of humor or cheer in this stream-of-consciousness study of two men whose genuine interests in science and nature were ruined by lust and its consequent remorse, but Brown (Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery) provides a delicate rendition of gloomy themes.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
This historical novel by the author of Decorations in a Ruined Cemetry attempts to re-create a little-known moment in the life of ornithologist John James Audubon. Around 1821, Audubon realized that he was not going to make a living as a portraitist and conceived his grand plan to observe and draw all of the birds in North America. In this story, he meets the fictional physician Emile Gautreaux and his wife, Myra, at a plantation where he teaches the owner's daughter music and painting. When the Gautreauxs arrive by carriage, Myra collapses and dies. Emile asks Audubon to sit with the dead body overnight to help keep away the evil spirits. Thirty years later, on his deathbed, Audubon summons Gautreauxwhom he has not seen since that nightto unburden his soul. Both men bear secrets about Myra and her mysterious death and thus have been subconsciously linked ever since that time. Part mystery and part historical novel, this tale is told by both men in alternating chapters. While it is a well-written book that deals with the themes of death, regret, and our place in the world, the characters are not fully engaging. Recommended for larger collections with well-developed historical fiction sections.Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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A great mystery work maintains the suspense, the tension of the story to the very end. The tale itself sustains and lures the reader throughout the book without the need for blind alleys or misdirection. The facets that I mention can be great fun when used by many authors. Mr. Brown did not use them here, and I think the work is all that much better without the devices.
A young woman dies and Audubon is asked to sit watch with the husband the first night following her death. There is a second watch that has three owners, a watch that works or doesn't, a watch that appears to have a mind of its own. A common ritual in this instance has immense importance, for the husband is considered a notorious anatomist/resurrectionist, and Mr. Audubon has knowledge that drives his guilt for 30 years, when on his deathbed he summons the man he sat with that evening. But what is he guilty of, why does Emile, the deceased's husband, make a month long trek dealing with his own failing health to hear what Audubon wishes to say? And what could possibly be haunting Emile for these now past 30 years? The answers are all in the book, and they are not what appear to be obvious or even high probability predictions. The author is brilliant at manipulating what he shares and how he shares it, so that what you may take as a conversation among characters is something very different.
The author seems to play with the reader's need to know and the reader's willingness to make presumptions before the tale is complete. The effect he produces is really marvelous and entertaining. When he digresses from the specifics at hand to share the imagery of a roaring fire, a hurricane, and the flashing blades of the cutters of the cane as they work in his inferno is great reading.
John Gregory Brown is another writer that seems to have yet to be discovered by large numbers of readers. His work will now be on my reading list going forward.
1820's New Orleans and Louisiana provide a facinating and colorful backdrop to this novel. Brown has a great historical figure to work with in Audubon and he has created very interesting characters and events to build a story around. Brown's words bring Audubon alive and paint facinating characters in Dr. Gautreaux, his wife and even minor characters such as Percy the servant and Dr. Gautreaux's former protege.
Brown is obviously a gifted writer, but he falls short of writing a great novel for several reasons. The story is told by both Audubon and Gautreaux, and he has them as old men retelling the events. The storyline goes back and forth between the men, and shifts back and forth from present time to their pasts. This is not a bad idea, but it is done so much that I had difficulty following the story and remembering who was speaking. It is also complicated by the fact that Audubon is telling the story on his deathbed and speaking to his 2 daughters, who died as infants. Are his memories real or the hallucinations a mind long gone? Each of Brown's characters has a story worth telling, but none of them are told entirely, including the story of Audubon and Gautreaux. Brown alludes to a dark mystery which will be solved once Gautreaux and Audubon meet again. But Brown never delivers, and the end is very disppointing.
I felt like I read the beginning of a great novel, which lost its way and was never finished. Rich characters and a great historical and cultural setting is just not enough to carry the story.