July 2007

Colleen Mondor

fiction

The Bestiary by Nicholas Christopher

In his new novel, The Bestiary, author Nicholas Christopher has crafted a literary mysteries about a missing historic manuscript but does not include high speed chases, Vatican conspiracies, or last minute showdowns with arch rivals. In fact, as his protagonist Xeno Atlas pursues the long lost medieval text Caravan Bestiary, I was reminded more than once of Josephine Tey’s classic Daughter of Time. Xeno is also in pursuit of a historic mystery, in his case what happened to the Bestiary, but he approaches his quest from a different angle then those who pursued it before him. Most importantly, he finds what he is looking for without any poorly explained and ludicrous flashes of brilliance, relying instead on a dogged determinedness and unflinching belief that the book will one day be found.

The Bestiary begins with young Xeno being raised by his maternal grandmother while his merchant marine father is away at sea. His mother died when he was born, and, even though her family never forgave her for the man she married, his grandmother still came to raise him. She filled his life with stories of fantastic animals and suggestions that his ancestors were gifted in mysterious ways. After her death, Xeno finds himself sent to boarding school. He is left with only a now distant tie to his best friend, his family, and his beloved dog that he had to leave behind. The German shepherd Re dies just a month later:

Two weeks later Bruno sent me Re’s ashes. I opened the package in the bathroom, away from the other boys, tears flooding my eyes. The ashes were in a tight gray packet the size of a brick. I couldn’t believe my dog’s bodily self had been reduced to that. Bruno also sent Re’s leather collar and the medallion imprinted with his name, my name and my old address. I placed them and the ashes alongside my grandmother’s music box in the trunk under my bed. Now Re’s spirit had joined hers and my mother’s.

Throughout my stay at that school, I felt his presence, not as a shadowy mist, but a weight that shifted gently at the end of the bed, or a rustle in the shadows, or a brushing against my leg when I walked in the woods.

Later, Bruno’s firefighter father dies in an accident and Xeno goes home for the funeral, connecting with Bruno’s sister in a way the two, now teenagers, have never felt before. In Lena, he finds someone who understands his own loss, although they are each missing something -- or someone -- different.

It pained me to see her like that, but I didn’t try to draw her out.

"I understand you want to help,” she said, blowing smoke into the darkness, “but I can’t see anything in front of me right now. All those people. I just want my father back.” Her eyes softened. “I’m glad you’re here, Xeno.”

I took her hand. I wanted to hold her.

There is a lot more in store for Lena and Xeno as they travel in and out of each other’s lives, but before that relationship can unfold Xeno has to discover the Caravan Bestiary and begin his long personal journey to recovering it. He is introduced to the book while at school, at the age of 15. His history teacher tells him about it after Xeno professes an interest in imaginary animals (this follows the interest generated by stories he was told by his grandmother). He learns that bestiaries are a category of books devoted to imaginary animals. In printed form, the subject dates back to the Middle Ages, and Christopher draws strongly from the known facts about such books, including real titles and histories, when detailing Xeno’s growing interest in the subject. The Caravan Bestiary is fiction, however. As his teacher explains it was, “an incendiary work, at one time known only to the powerful -- princes and churchmen -- who believed in its latent power, and to scholars who secretly passed it among themselves.” Its contents were, “the animals lost in the Great Flood.”

In other words, as Xeno exclaims, “The ones that didn’t make it onto Noah’s ark.”

According to an interview on his site, Christopher based the Caravan on existing bestiaries such as the one found at the Abbey of Revesby in Lincolnshire, which was compiled by 13th century monks. He also used the lives of true researchers over the centuries who have hunted bestiaries to imbue Xeno’s own hunt with an air of authenticity. This attention to detail, and the namedropping of recognizable historic figures like Lord Byron, add another layer to Xeno’s story, and make it far more believable than other literary mysteries.

As the teenage Xeno becomes consumed (obsessed is a word fraught with too many negative connotations for use here) with finding the Caravan Bestiary, his nearly nonexistent relationship with his distant father collapses and he sees his childhood friendships fade into only the most occasional contact. His college years are given only a few pages of text as he drifts from curiosity about the Caravan into an ultimately unfortunate romantic relationship and a lot of late nights spent in the thrall of drugs and alcohol. As the book is set in the late 1960s, it is no surprise when Christopher turns the narrative to a devastating chapter in Vietnam where Xeno is nearly killed. It is while recovering in Hawaii from his combat injuries that he reconnects with his teenage interest (and former history teacher) and commits again to finding the long lost text.

Although there is a strong parallel storyline about the loss of family in The Bestiary, which in some ways makes much of the book read as an exceptional coming-of-age story which will certainly appeal to some teens, as a historian I was seduced by Christopher’s many lyrical passages about history and the stirring way in which he brings the past alive again and again. Consider this from Xeno’s teacher:

“There were eighteen Alexandrias,” he explained, “Alexander chose the sites himself: in Persia, India, even Siberia. Only the Egyptian Alexandria survives. In Scythia, Alexandria was a city of sandstone towers. By the Indus River, it was a sprawl of canals, with houses on stilts. The Babylonian Alexandria contained a zoo, with exotic animals from around his empire. Kabul, Afghanistan, was one of the Alexandrias. And this should interest you: Alexander also named one city Bucephalia, after his horse, and another, Peritas, to honor his dog.”

The history and historical references are deep in The Bestiary,and for those with any interest in lost books, mythology or animal legends, this novel is going to be a delight from beginning to end. But as much as it is about a determined man’s hunt for a historical mystery, it also just as much about him coming to grips with his own lost family and the manner in which the missing text manages to help him find himself. For romantics I will point out that Lena does return, all grown up, at a critical juncture in the story, and her contribution to the book’s emotional punch must certainly be included.

Finally, I was a bit surprised to read in Booklist’s review of The Bestiary that the, “novel’s potential falls somewhat flat under the weight of its leisurely pace and overabundant detail, lacking the emotive power of Byatt’s Possession or the atmospheric tension of Safon’s Shadow of the Wind.” As a reader who thoroughly enjoyed both of those novels, I can only wonder why the way in which those authors ratcheted up the tension must be considered the rule here, and for deviating from its path Christopher has failed somehow. The tension in this book is of a far more personal type than Byatt’s or Safon’s -- it is all about Xeno and his pursuit, and does not involve the machinations of others. I found The Bestiary to be a far more elegant -- and realistic -- adventure into the past than the other titles. I enjoyed all of them a great deal, but Nicholas Christopher’s work seemed most familiar and possible; it is, in essence, the sort of adventure that any lover of history (literary, mythical or otherwise) could one day hopefully experience.

The Bestiary by Nicholas Christopher
Dial
ISBN 0385337361
307 pages