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The Conjurer's Bird by Martin Davies

Left to myself I doubt that I would have bought this book, by an author I didn't know, with a £10 cover price for the paperback and a storyline about the search for a stuffed bird. It was my daughter who passed it on to me. "Go on," she said, "I know you'll enjoy it." I did.

The Conjurer's Bird by Martin Davies

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A well-paced story based in the eighteenth century and the present day about the search for the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta. We're rather keen on the book here at the bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: January 2006
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
ISBN: 034092053X

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There are two stories in the book. The earlier is about Joseph Banks, the naturalist, who sailed with Captain Cook in the Endeavour. He's haunted by the memory of an elusive woman with startling eyes whom he encountered in the woods near his home.

The later story features John 'Fitz' Fitzgerald, taxidermist, lecturer and some-time conservationist, who finds himself drawn into the search for the only example of an extinct species of bird - the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta. Why are a number of people suddenly very keen to find the stuffed bird? Indeed, after two centuries, does it still exist?

I recently read Jose Carlos Somoza's The Athenian Murders and it left me without any inclination to read books where two stories from different time frames are intercut. There's a difference though. This is very well done. The chapters alternate between the two story lines and there's even a change of font as an additional guide. Revelations in one story throw light into a dark corner of the other story. Too often intercut stories can seem contrived, but both narratives had a good flow and balanced each other well.

The book has been well-researched and it's difficult to know where fact ends and fiction begins. Much of the earlier story is a mixture of fact and speculation - it's unlikely that the story is entirely true, but most of it could well have been. Joseph Banks did sail with Captain Cook on his first expedition and did refuse to go on the second at very short notice for reasons which were never fully explained. He did break his engagement to Harriet Blosset and took as his mistress 'Miss B'. Her identity was never established.

The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta did exist too and the novel would seem to be reasonably factual on the bird's background and a contemporary drawing of the bird can be seen at the Natural History Museum. The stuffed and mounted bird was given to Joseph Banks and was catalogued in his collection but its fate is unknown.

The story is educational. I found out, in the most enjoyable way, a great deal about various species of birds and Captain Cook's expeditions to the southern hemisphere. There is also a lot of food for thought about the casual way in which the human race treats other species, both historically and currently. In the story Fitzgerald is writing a book about extinct species of birds - but how is it possible to write such a book when more species are constantly becoming extinct? How do you know if a species has become extinct without ever being known?

The background is excellent and the plot is of the same calibre. It's difficult to place it in a particular genre as it could be described as an historical novel or a mystery quite easily; there's even a case to be made for calling it a romance. Certainly, if your taste lies in any of these areas then you'll find something that you like in the book. The writing style is good and it's very easy reading even when it deals with scientific points.

I have just one quibble and that's that the characterisation is not first class. Banks and his mistress came across well and I felt that I could empathise with them, understand their actions, but in the later story I felt that more could have been made of the characters. Fitzgerald seemed to be a shadowy figure and I didn't actually warm to him at all. Having said that, it detracts only slightly from what amounts to a very good read.

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