‘The Conjuror’s Bird’ by Martin Davies


2005, 400 p.

On Captain Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific, a bird- not necessarily uncommon and rather unprepossessing – was caught, preserved and sent back to England where it became part of Joseph Banks’ enormous collection.  But the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta was never seen again, in either its preserved form or in the Pacific.  The lost bird is the central motif of this book.

The story is told through two separate and alternating narratives.  The first, set in the present day  tells the story of  John Fitzgerald, an academic whose specialty is extinct birds, who is visited by his ex-lover, conservationist Gabriella. He is spurred by her visit to renew his search for a trace of the now-lost specimen, aided by Katya, a young graduate student.  There’s lots of skullduggery and double-crossing as various people, with even more various reasons, are all looking for the same lost bird.

The second story line, displayed in a smaller font and voiced in  more formal, old-fashioned language, tells the story of Sir Joseph Banks, a man well-known to Australians as the naturalist on Cook’s first voyage of discovery.  He intended travelling on Cook’s second voyage as well, but suddenly withdrew, ostensibly because the cabin arrangements were not to his liking.  This narrative thread explains his withdrawal and the provenance of the preserved remains of the mysterious bird.  It’s a love story and is quite beautifully told, in a way that honours the careful  style of nineteenth-century fiction.

Martin Davies is a BBC television producer and he brings this experience to the first narrative thread of this book.  It’s all very much BBC Friday night mini-series fare: fast paced, with multiple story-lines and red herrings and a nice satisfying ending.   I preferred, and have more respect for the second storyline, woven around on a number of documented facts into a plausible and satisfying explanation.

I read this book with my bookgroup, and quite a few of us spent time Googling Joseph Banks.  It made me almost regret that Googling is so easy now, because the real art of historical fiction of this type is colouring in the spaces between the known facts.  It brought to mind something I read in the London Review of Books recently, where a review of Rupert Thomson’s book Secrecy discussed techniques that writers like Peter Ackroyd and A. S. Byatt have adopted (changing the name of their character; cutting the biographical link) in order to defend the imaginative space to write about historical figures:

…instant access to information strengthens the case for  such defensive strategies.  It only takes a mouse-moment to move from ignorance to an unrooted expertise.  There’s a lesser allocation of breathing space to projects that both plunder the real and depart from it.  It becomes all to easy to collapse a fictional narrative into a piece of failed history, turning it into a travesty of something it never claimed to be  – Adam Mars-Jones ‘The screams were silver’ London Review of Books 25 April 2013.

I enjoyed this book as a bit of a romp, with enough fidelity to the historical record to go along willingly for the ride.

My rating: 8.5/10 (it would be a good holiday read)

Read because: Book group selection

Sourced from: CAE Bookgroups.

4 responses to “‘The Conjuror’s Bird’ by Martin Davies

  1. I gave up on CAE bookgroups because they never seemed to take any notice of our requests and sent us very old, obscure and not very interesting things instead, but just occasionally a treasure would turn up. This one sounds like a ‘maybe’, if I ever come across it at the library.

    • Our secretary last year (who happened to be a scientist) had a hypothesis that you never received any books on your top 10, but DID receive books 11-20 on the list. So she changed the order so that our top selections appeared further down the list. So far, it didn’t seem to have made much difference.

  2. I’ve never heard of this book before, but it does sound intriguing. I’d never thought of instant access to knowledge as being harmful. I particularly liked the sentence you quoted:

    It only takes a mouse-moment to move from ignorance to an unrooted expertise.

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