Tragedy and redemption, sorrow and longing: the motifs of extinction are woven together in this thoughtful third novel from Deaner (The Body Spoken, 1999, etc.).
A passive, detached voice works well in this tale of New Yorker Will Mendelsohn, a scientist writing a book on the extinction of species. How he comes to this interest is of little surprise: his mother, a Holocaust survivor, crowded his childhood with stories of death, tales of the fragility of life. When his wife accidentally burns his nearly completed manuscript (they decide to part ways afterward), Will takes to the road, traveling the world to record the process of species disappearing forever. Peppered throughout are excerpts from Will’s new work-in-progress, weirdly charming anecdotes as to how a particular species makes the shift from health to destruction. When he arrives in India to study the one-horned rhino, he obligingly agrees to spend a few days with Mim, euphemistically referred to as his mother’s childhood friend, though really a girl she knew in the camps. He soon meets Stella, a bombastic though charming New York actress who is staying in India with her friend Grace Tagore. And it’s Grace, an American married to a wealthy Indian tea farmer, who keeps Will in India; days stretch into months as the two begin an affair. Grace’s husband is dying from a mysterious illness; Grace herself is hiding a terrible past; Mim fears that political groups extolling Indian purity will oust her from her home; and Stella has naïvely involved herself with a rebel group—plot elements that one way or another allude to extinction. Will, largely an unsympathetic character, confronts the subject of his life’s work on a personal scale: through a mix-up, he is arrested and beaten senseless. When he awakes, unable to move, he finds himself the prisoner of a small boy. This strange turn of events transforms Will into a true expert in his field and a deserving recipient of what comes next.
A smart, well-composed study of the perilous nature of survival.