Waxwings Hardcover – 15 Aug 2003
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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 VS 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 characterises 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
...intensely visualised and beautifully written... an absorbing read, its prose fastidious and finely textured. -- Sam Leith in Daily Telegraph, September 2003
His views, ironic and humane, are always acute; always illuminating. His prose - agile, musky, particular - is a treasure... -- Colin Greenland in Guardian, September 2003
Incisive... acute... hilarious... piercing... a searingly accurate portrait. -- Stephen Amidon in Sunday Times, September 2003
The opening is marvellous...cogent and impressive. -- David Robson in Sunday Telegraph, September 2003
Waxwings is zestfully written and full of deftly humorous touches... -- DJ Taylor in Independent, September 2003
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Top Customer Reviews
It's set in Seattle at the turn of the millennium, and tells the intertwined stories of two immigrants -- comfortably-off, Hungarian-English academic Tom Janeway, and illegal Chinese immigrant Chick. Their contrasting experiences give Raban the opportunity to leap from glitzy dot-coms and paper millionaires to slummy docklands and homeless people's encampments, showing his usual empathy with a wide range of people and environments. In some ways, it's reminiscent of David Lodge, but Raban's writing is more sensitive and his characters more rounded. The way he builds up relationships between his characters is utterly convincing, and at the end, without any drama, or anything really being resolved, you get a feeling that there is some kind of epiphany in both Tom and Chick's lives. And it isn't till the last page that you find out why it's called Waxwings! The last two paragraphs are simply beautiful.
It's not his best book, but I stayed up late to finish it. First of a series of three, so I look forward to the rest -- but knowing Raban's pace of writing I will have to be patient ...
Set in Seattle in the dotcom boom of 1999-2000, the main character is Tom Janeaway, who is surrounded by a series of other mainly male supporting characters - Chick the Chinese immigrant, Detective Nagel, the opportunistic novelist David Scott-Rice, the lawyer Hamish McTurk, Tom's son Finn. There's also his partner, Beth.
As I start to write down the list of characters I realise that much of the pleasure of the book springs from Raban's ability to evoke a broad cast of characters - and to bring to life their fumbling attempts to connect, interact and (to coin a dotcom sort of phrase) transact. One peculiar gift Raban has is for describing people's smiles.
Much of the writing is vivid. There's a scene when, soon after separating from his partner, Tom decides to take up smoking again:
"There was nostalgic pleasure in disrobing the box of its cellophane wrapping and tweaking the foil covering aside to expose the triple-banked, cork-coloured muzzles of the cigarettes."
The principal characters are not Mr and Mrs Average. Tom is a university literature specialist who does regular radio talks. He's also overseeing an unlikely creative writing project for a man with money who is always in the air. Beth, Tom's wife, is a high flier in high tech. She works for a Seattle start-up dot com that's trying to bring navigable reality to an increasingly virtual world. She's the type that gets paid in options, optionally, despite working every minute of her life. Their little boy, Finn, named in recognition of Irish links, survives the careering whirlwind of the parental environment extremely well. It's easy to imagine the organised chaos of their old-style house, no doubt deliberately chosen for something Tom and Beth agreed to label character.
Chick is Chinese. At the book's start, he has successfully stowed away in a trans-Pacific container aboard a ship being piloted into dock. Others in the black interior have died en route, the rest captured by immigration officials. But Chick is resourceful and motivated. He survives, a keen if illegal immigrant, prepared to make a life for himself. His pithy existence admits no free time. His devotion to self-advancement is tunnel-vision complete, even if it means occasionally eating out of trash cans.Read more ›
However, I can't be remotely charitable about this novel which is a lazy, self-indulgent narrative that should never have been published.
It is set in Seattle at the turn of the millennium and brings together two immigrants to the US - an illegal Chinese and a legal Englishman.
The reader is supposed to believe that, within a few days of his arrival, the Chinese is running a business in which a group of Mexicans carry out repair work on the homes of affluent Americans.
While the Chinese is, at least, doing some real work, the Englishman is a useless academic at a minor college contributing nothing to his new homeland.
He is quaint as joke Englishmen in the US always are. He describes a detective as a "good egg", quotes Swift, Shakespeare and all those other old bores and tells his son - called Finn, incidentally - bedtime stories about a nasty character called Mr. Wicked whereas his politically correct American wife does not want the boy to eat sweets or watch too much television.
Other "characters" include an alcoholic English writer who is trying to get our hero's college to pay for him to make a reading tour of the US and a mysterious millionaire Indian business tycoon who is constantly flying and communicates by mobile phones which always break down so our hero never knows what he wants.
These - and other characters - flutter in and out with no purpose other than to fill pages.Read more ›