Charles Darwin turns up in Jane Alison's thoughtful third novel, "Natives and Exotics." It's a cameo appearance, but a telling one. Heading...
“Natives and Exotics”
by Jane Alison
Harcourt, 238 pp., $23
Charles Darwin turns up in Jane Alison’s thoughtful third novel, “Natives and Exotics.”
It’s a cameo appearance, but a telling one. Heading back to England on the schooner HMS Beagle, Darwin ruminates on the fate of the giant tortoises of the Galapagos:
“He had tried to ride one but couldn’t keep his balance and soon felt foolish astride the grand creature. They could get to be awfully old. He’d seen one with 1786 carved in its shell! They might be old as trees. Yet within twenty years they would all be captured, overturned, scooped out, and eaten; not one would remain. Just as, he suspected, the kangaroos of Australia would soon be gone. Men did what they must do to live, after all.”
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This interplay of human wishes on nature’s grand pageant of life is a current that runs through Alison’s narration, linking three generations of a family.
Organized into five parts, the novel tells a trio of stories.
The first introduces the Forder family — Hal, Rosalind and 9-year-old Alice. Hal is a career diplomat, just assigned to the U.S. embassy in Quito, Ecuador, in the early 1970s. The political situation is volatile: A new leader has taken control of the country, challenging American interests. While her stepfather works, Alice goes to an exclusive school, learning to make new friends, practicing a new language and marveling in the beauty of the country.
Jane Alison spent her childhood in the foreign service, and her details of this elite, transient life are vivid and poignant: Alice’s initiation into the inner circle of school girls, the grown-up parties mimicked by the children, the rush of new places and sensations, give this section of the book the completeness of a well-crafted novella.
Through Alice’s eyes we see the repercussions of lives spent without cultural roots, where every stay is exotic and brief.
Part 2 moves the novel to Australia, 1929. Violet is a young newlywed, homesteading in the wilds. As she tries without success to dig out a tenacious mallee tree stump, Violet daydreams about her conflicting desire to see the world verses the rural life she has chosen for herself:
“… People wandered and wandered, and what did it mean, where on earth did they ever belong? They weren’t plants, after all.”
Part 3 takes the story to the historical roots of Violet’s past, early 19th-century Scotland. Her great-great-grandfather, a mute young man named George, and his protector Mr. Clarence escape the violent land grabs known as the Clearances. They begin a new life as orange farmers in the Portuguese Azores, islands in the North Atlantic Ocean. While the sedentary Mr. Clarence philosophizes about the colonial march of progress, George passionately cultivates a garden sanctuary away from human affairs.
Soon the political fortunes of Portugal and a tree blight infestation turn this adventure into an ecological failure. George leaves the Azores for Australia.
The final two sections pick up Violet and Alice’s story. Violet, now elderly, takes a global cruise, only to become increasingly homesick. And Alice, now a young woman, brings the family’s story full circle, as she explores a Scottish beach.
Unlike her highly successful debut novel “The Love-Artist,” “Natives and Exotics” has no strong dramatic pull. Each story is a meditation. As such, many characters have a static quality, designed for Alison’s musings about foreign and native, which aren’t particularly enlightening.
What gives pleasure is how precisely she sees the fierce beauty of the natural world, as it moves, grows, evolves, both despite and because of the blind interference of humankind.