Second-novelist Anderson (Hidden Latitudes, 1996) offers a languid tale about two naturalists on a tropical island guarding their restoration project from unknown saboteurs.
Fran and Christian are the sole inhabitants of tiny Egret Island, a nature reserve just off the coast of Mauritius. Fran’s mission, a reverse Darwinism (“the survival of the weakest”), is to restore the island to its pre-human state, remove all exotic creatures like monkeys and mongooses, and see that her beloved mourner-birds do not go the way of the dodo. Now middle-aged, Fran was a professor at Berkeley until her husband ended their marriage because she couldn’t give him children. Her Swiss assistant, Christian, is a burnt-out Red Cross official who quit after a brutal hitch in Bosnia, leaving behind his pregnant lover, Nermina, a Muslim. Fran’s former assistant, Satish, a Mauritian, died when his dinghy overturned. There are mysteries here. Was Satish’s death an accident? In what circumstances did Christian abandon Nermina? And who is releasing predators to attack the mourner-birds? Anderson, oh, so slowly drip-feeds us the answers. Christian won’t open up to lonely, bossy Fran about Bosnia but finds release on Mauritius with the lovely Asmita, a restaurant hostess, but ends his courtship abruptly when he realizes she has tricked him into a promise of marriage (too bad the key conversation is missing). When Christian is almost drowned by some locals (the saboteurs?), Fran nurses him back to health, they become, first, confidants, then lovers as Fran reveals that Satish had been her lover too and Christian talks about Nermina, who, he just learned, is still alive, so he must return to Europe. Only at end do we learn that the death of Satish and near-death of Christian were caused by youths working for a corrupt Mauritian businessman who wanted the island for himself; the explanation is feeble and half-hearted.
More Mauritius and less Bosnia might have rescued Anderson’s story from the doldrums.