Jonathan Raban

"Waxwings"

(Reviewed by Carisa Richner MAR 27, 2005)

Sprawled in the torn leather armchair that was missing a caster and had once belonged to the corseted Victorian general…Tom felt at liberty, in another country.

Waxwings by Jonathan Raban

Waxwings, which was shortlisted for the British Book Award in 2003 and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a compelling snapshot of America on the cusp of a new century. Jonathan Raban tells a rich and eloquent story about the search for meaning, community and place.

Tom Janeway is a Hungarian born, English bred professor and writer who lives with his wife and son in Seattle. Being a somewhat introverted and self-absorbed person, he is shocked when his wife Beth asks for a divorce. Adjusting to life without his wife and without comforting routines of caring for his son, Tom becomes the main suspect in a child abduction case.

Meanwhile, a container ship has docked in Seattle containing Chinese stowaways. One of the men, Chick, escapes the INS agents and finds a job taking asbestos out of a ship for $8.50 an hour, paid in cash. In contrast to Tom, who probably would have witnessed the kidnapping had he been a little less caught up in his own thoughts, Chick quickly absorbs concrete reality. He hires the crew away from the asbestos boss and puts them to work as home remodeling contractors. Chick and Tom meet when Chick convinces Tom to reroof his house and replace his front porch. The narration frequently changes from first person to third person during the course of Chick’s story, giving the reader an interesting insight into Chick as Tom sees him, which is mostly as a threat in the beginning and as a part of his family near the end, and seeing Chick through his own mind.

This book is fraught with the question of what is real. The most striking example of this occurs during the scenes at Beth’s job. Beth works at a website that gives information on neighborhoods in select cities. The user selects a city and a neighborhood, and then takes a virtual tour of it, with the ability to click on businesses and properties for sale. There is a virtual Starbuck in the neighborhood, which has become almost a real community where locals and out of towners exchange information about the neighborhood, gossip, and even form relationships: “Actual dates were made in the virtual cafes, and sometimes actual fights erupted from them, as neighbors left their PC screens to confront each other angrily in ‘the physical venue,’ as the real world was known inside the Klondike building.” Raban contrasts the richness of life in the “virtual” community with the loneliness and alienation Tom feels, especially after news that he is the main suspect in the abduction hits the media (which itself is an entire commentary of the media’s rabid coverage of the sensational). Being hounded by reporters traps him in his house, and he realizes that the only friend he has is another professor who he doesn’t even like.

Another interesting theme in this novel is the state of being an alien in a strange land. Both Tom and Chick are literally aliens, one legal, the other not. More importantly, they both are metaphorically “in another country.” Although familiar with the ways of America, Tom is in a place that he never thought he would be, an outcast whose guilt has already been decided, and must learn the customs and ways of this new country. Chick must learn to be an American in a much more literal way, but he, too, begins to learn what it means to be a part of a family.

The significance of the title becomes apparent during the last scene of the book, when Tom and his son Finn catch sight of a flock of waxwings in the tree outside. Waxwings are birds that have a highly developed social system. They share berries, passing one back and forth before finally one bird will eat it, and then do it all over again. They display the kind of community that the characters in this novel all seem to seek.

Waxwings is a wonderfully rich book, and I highly recommend it.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Waxwings at Random House



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About the Author:

Jonathan RabanJonathan Raban was born in Norfolk in 1942, the son of a Church of England Canon. He worked as a university lecturer, teaching English and American literature, before becoming a full-time writer in 1969. He has written for radio, television and the stage.

Raban has received the National Book Critics Circle Award (for Bad Land), the Heinemann Award for Literature, the Thomas Cook Award twice, (for Hunting Mr. Heartbreak and Old Glory), the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, the Governor’s Award of the State of Washington, and the PEN West Creative Nonfiction Award, among others.

Raban lives in Seattle, with his daughter.

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