Christopher’s smart, entertaining fifth novel (Franklin Flyer, 2002, etc.) is a marvelous hybrid of intellectual quest and well-plotted adventure.
Xeno Atlas’s mother died at his birth; his seafaring father, usually absent, is frosty during rare visits. Xeno is reared in 1950s New York by his maternal grandmother, with help from an Albanian housekeeper. He finds a second home in the casual, crowded household of his friend, animal-obsessed Bruno Moretti, and develops a crush on Bruno’s younger sister Lena. When the grandmother dies, Xeno’s father exiles his 13-year-old son to boarding school in Maine. It’s there that the boy hears of the legendary Caravan Bestiary, “a compilation of all the animals lost in the Great Flood.” These are Noah’s rejects, marvelous, monstrous hybrids like the basilisk, chimera and phoenix; the nine-tailed fox, a trickster that can assume any human shape; the gullinbursti, a wild boar forged of gold. Long fascinated by his grandmother’s stories of mythical creatures (including a Sicilian ancestor said to be a wood sprite), Xeno decides to find the Caravan Bestiary. Helped by a teacher, he learns that scholars traced this remarkable book’s whereabouts to 13th-century Rhodes, but there the trail went cold. He spends the next 15 years tracking the bestiary from Hawaii to Paris, Venice, Philadelphia and Crete, interrupted only by a terrifying stint as a soldier in Vietnam. Christopher deftly intertwines this quest with Xeno’s effort to decipher his family history. The result is a coming-of-age tale richly decorated, but not over-gilded, with animal lore and history. Only a slightly hokey romance toward the end strikes an off-key note.
A literary thriller in which—unusually—neither “literary” nor “thriller” seems an afterthought.