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Harries’s first novel is a triumph: a captivating, intelligent work taking the reader to the South Africa of Cecil Rhodes, in 1899, a region on the brink of war. In an elegant merging of idea and character, Harries tells the story of the dying imperialist Rhodes (—The Colossus—), who believes his life will be saved if he can hear again the birds of his native England. With Rhodes begin the themes of the tragedies of power and the quest for control. He hires the Oxford ornithologist Frederick Wills, a private, anxious don, to escort a shipload of songbirds to the Great Granary, Rhodes’s manorial residences. Guests there include Rudyard and Mrs. Kipling and Leander Jameson, the leader of the infamous Jameson Raid that precipitated the Boer War; and Wills embarks on his utopian voyage in the aftermath of the trial and imprisonment of his friend Oscar Wilde, with whom he had studied at Oxford under aesthetician John Ruskin. Having abandoned Wilde to his imprisonment, Wills approaches the Great Granary with a troubled, betrayer’s soul. But great appetites abound as he arrives: Rhodes’s ambition to subjugate Africa, Jameson’s hope of fulfilling his loyalty to Rhodes, the Kiplings” fascination with young innocence—as well as the English power to “civilize.” In deftly written interjections, Wills recalls Ruskin’s obsessions with natural beauty and Wilde’s exhilarating flirtations with sexual and moral taboos. This concentration of aspirations unsettles him, and his own dream of innocent beauty uncorrupted by the human yearning for possession blossoms in his friendship with a South African girl, who enchantingly (and dangerously) flits in and out of view. Harries’s ambition is broad, but her superb control of Wills’s fussy voice—the narrative prism used to view these historical figures—diminishes their “fame” while enhancing the intimacy with which Wills and the reader comprehends them. Far from a costume history, this is a genuinely provocative debut novel about a place and time whose tragedy, folly, and several conflicted hearts are instantly recognizable.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 1-58234-019-6
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1999