Temporary Residents – A review of Waxwings by Jonathan Raban

Jonathan Schacher (@jschacher) / TwitterWaxwings by Jonathan Raban succeeds at every level. It’s one of the best novels I have ever read. Its apparent simplicity continually reveals and interprets the complex, nuanced relationships we have with identity Jonathan Schacher, individuality, family and aspiration. It’s how we manage our inescapable selfishness that seems to count.

The principal characters are not Mr and Mrs Average. Tom is a university literature specialist who does regular radio talks. He’s also overseeing an unlikely creative writing project for a man with money who is always in the air. Beth, Tom’s wife, is a high flier in high tech. She works for a Seattle start-up dot com that’s trying to bring navigable reality to an increasingly virtual world. She’s the type that gets paid in options, optionally, despite working every minute of her life. Their little boy, Finn, named in recognition of Irish links, survives the careering whirlwind of the parental environment extremely well. It’s easy to imagine the organised chaos of their old-style house, no doubt deliberately chosen for something Tom and Beth agreed to label character.

Chick is Chinese. At the book’s start, he has successfully stowed away in a trans-Pacific container aboard a ship being piloted into dock. Others in the black interior have died en route, the rest captured by immigration officials. But Chick is resourceful and motivated. He survives, a keen if illegal immigrant, prepared to make a life for himself. His pithy existence admits no free time. His devotion to self-advancement is tunnel-vision complete, even if it means occasionally eating out of trash cans.

And then there’s the apparently peripheral figures – the employer that happily watches his Sino-Mexican gang strip asbestos, the failed English hack who profitably reinvents himself as something hip, the college colleagues intent on asserting status, the dot com employees out for show. They are all superbly portrayed, perhaps with both sympathy and derision. Functional they may be, but they are never less than credible and suggest that each may be worthy of their own novel.

Almost as you would expect, Tom and Beth’s marriage disintegrates. It kind of flakes at the edges until the centre cannot hold. She buys a new condo, perhaps thus revealing her enduring but unexpressed and suppressed distaste of the old house. She soon has a new nest mate or two. Finn reacts as children do and his sharing out between the less than estranged partners complicates.

Ton, of course, falls apart, except in public, as does publicly the house he continues to inhabit. He drinks, takes up smoking, but never seems to miss a meal, especially when Fin is around. He hires Chick, the Chinese immigrant, who is now doing roofing jobs with his own Mexican gang. As a relief from the grind, Tom takes a long, self-absorbed, creative walk, an act that might just have changed everything. We meet a policeman with his own scores to settle with life. The richness of Waxwings’ canvas is staggering and thoroughly enriching.

Ben blames himself for the tragedy and it’s forever changed his perspective on life: “Who wants to live in a world where suffering is the only thing that lasts, a place where every single thing that ever meant the world to you can be stripped away in an instant? “Whatever direction home decorators decide to go in, Adler has one piece of advice that applies to all styles. “Make it your own, ” he told Elle Décor. “Personal style means having a space that’s comfy but filled with stuff that has meaning to you. It should hold things created and inspired by passionate people. Personal style should make you happy and happiness is chic. “Ireland had long been beset by the English who had abused their friendship and eventually turned them into a colony. In 1199 the King of England, John, referred to Ireland as his “Sister Kingdom, ” but things quickly changed as England saw what money could be made by exploiting their Irish neighbors. The religion of England was Protestantism around that time, however Ireland was a catholic country, and this difference caused the Protestant English to look down on the Catholic Irish. By 1621 England held power over Ireland and they began to pass laws that took away the land of the Irish Catholics. In 1641 Irish Catholics owned 59% of the land in Ireland, but by 1703 they only owned 17%. One of the main factors in this transition was the revolt of 1688. Because the Irish Catholics were oppressed so terribly, in 1688 many of them decided to fight back against the English. However they could not hold up for long against the well trained army of the English. In order to pay their soldiers and captains, England promised these men fighting in its army land in Ireland. Since it was the Catholics who started the uprising it was the Catholics who lost their land when the English made good on their promises of land to their soldiers. These laws continued to be enforced and eventually the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland was abolished. The “Sister Kingdom” idea had completely disappeared by 1729 and Ireland was looked upon as an English Colony.

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