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Jo'Burg Days: Waxwings

Barbara Durlacher is impressed by Jonathan Raban’s novel Waxwings, which, though set in one city, attempts to encapsulate life in the USA today.

Waxwings by Jonathan Raban

An earlier non-fiction book by the same author, “Chasing the Red, White and Blue” followed the wave of emigration from the old European world to the undreamed-of challenges of the America, vividly describing the crossing the author made from Liverpool to New York on a container ship. After he landed in the States he duplicated the westward drift of immigrants hoping for a new life in the land of their dreams. These experiences clearly served as inspiration for much of this clever and well-structured story, ‘Waxwings’.

Opening the action on the bridge of the 51.000 ton Pacific Aurega bound for Seattle from Osaka and Hong Kong, the author introduces us to some unexpected dangers of American suburbia. Cleverly setting the scene with a laconic discussion between the harbour pilot and the experienced captain of the ship, a frisson of danger is created with the story of the child taken from her nursery-school playground by a cougar. Discerning readers will recognise a parallel between the animal’s attempt to survive the destruction of it’s habitat, and the desperate men trying to survive in an alien environment against the forces determined to stop them.

Confined without light, food or water in an airless container, a number of stowaways have lived for days in the most appalling conditions. But, as the ship docks, the men of the immigration service are waiting for them. After forcing open the container the officials are met with an appalling stench, dead bodies and frantic survivors prepared to do anything to enter America. All except one are arrested, and it is the fortunes of this one ‘illegal’ who slips through the net that we follow throughout the story.

The narrative then introduces a successful author, a professor of English at the city’s biggest university and describes his absent-minded, myopic absorption in his writing, his teaching and his young son. As the reader moves through scenes of his personal crisis, marital break-up and domestic upheaval, an even greater threat hangs over the first man who has been clever enough to adapt to his adopted country. On the edge of loosing everything as a result of the actions of one ruthless employer, the professor and the survivor are left to claw back their lives from the destruction caused by forces beyond their control.

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