Daphne du Maurier Reading Week: Rebecca Reread & Forster Biography
It’s been a couple of years since I took part in HeavenAli’s annual Daphne du Maurier Reading Week (the last time was with a review of My Cousin Rachel; this year, links are being hosted by Liz here).
My last-minute and meagre contribution comprises an attempted reread (which ended up being a skim) of Rebecca for book club last month, and a partial, ongoing read of Margaret Forster’s cracking biography of DDM.
I must have first read this in my early twenties, and remembered it as spooky and atmospheric. I had completely forgotten that the action opens not at Manderley (despite the exceptionally famous first line, which forms part of a prologue-like first chapter depicting the place empty without its master and mistress to tend to it) but in Monte Carlo, where the unnamed narrator meets Maxim de Winter while she’s a lady’s companion to bossy Mrs. Van Hopper. This section functions to introduce Max and his tragic history via hearsay, but I found the first 60 pages so slow that I had trouble maintaining momentum thereafter, especially through the low-action and slightly repetitive scenes as the diffident second Mrs de Winter explores the house and tries to avoid Mrs Danvers, so I ended up skimming most of it.
However, it was satisfying to rediscover the Jane Eyre parallels and there are deliciously chilling scenes, like with Mrs Danvers at the window and the way she then sabotages her young mistress at the costume ball. This was one of four rereads for book club already this year, which has the benefit of reducing pressure and sometimes increasing the comfort-read factor. We have two Rebeccas in my book club, so it seemed an appropriate choice. Others found the book as gripping as ever, with one member reading it in a day thanks to long hospital waits. Would you believe, I hadn’t at all remembered the truth of what happened to Rebecca! So there was that surprise awaiting me. In our discussion we remarked that though this has the trappings of a romance novel or mystery (e.g. see my dreadful paperback cover above!), it also has enduring literary weight – it won the National Book Award, for instance.
Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster (1993)
I read my first work by Forster, My Life in Houses, last year, and adored it, so the fact that she was the author was all the more reason to read this when I found a copy in a library secondhand book sale. I started it immediately after our meeting about Rebecca, but I find biographies so dense and daunting that I’m still only a third of the way into it even though I’ve been liberally skimming.
So far I have noted: du Maurier’s artistic pedigree, including her grandfather’s authorship of Trilby and her parents meeting through stage acting; her frank engagement in sexual activity, and presumed bisexuality (so far only evident through a requited crush on a teacher at her French finishing school, though perhaps there will be more to come); her first publications of short stories (“inspired by her three favourite short story writers, Maugham, Mansfield and Maupassant”) and the early novels, including one from a male point of view; her close relationship with her father and the crushing blow of his death; her determination to escape London for Cornwall; and her marriage to a soldier and ambivalent motherhood.
The last chapter I got to was all about the success of Rebecca. Though the critical reaction was generally favourable, reviewers also deemed it melodramatic … fair?
The Barbellion Prize 2022 Longlist
This is the third year that the Barbellion Prize will be awarded “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” In the inaugural year I read the entire shortlist, and last year I had already read a few from the longlist and was able to review another two shortlisted titles before the prize announcement.
The 2022 longlist was announced on Friday and contains two books I’d predicted – Hybrid Humans, which I reviewed earlier in the year; and Polluted Sex – and one more that I’d heard of (Chouette), while the rest were new to me. Letty McHugh kindly sent me a PDF copy of her self-published memoir in poems, Book of Hours, and I may be able to get some of the others from the publishers to support the prize through reviews early in the new year.
This list comes from the Prize website. Click on any title for more information. Here we have three (hybrid) memoirs, two autobiographical poetry collections, a novel, a book of short stories, and a biography. Will it be the year for a poetry collection or biography to win?
Head Above Water by Shahd Alshammari (Neem Tree Press)
From the synopsis: “takes us into a space of intimate conversations on illness and society’s stigmatization of disabled bodies. We are invited in to ask the big questions about life, loss, and the place of the other. … Through conversations about women’s identities, bodies, and our journeys through life, we arrive at a politics of love, survival, and hope.”
Recovering Dorothy: The Hidden Life of Dorothy Wordsworth by Polly Atkin (Saraband)
From the synopsis: “Less well known [than her writing and famous brother] … is that Dorothy became seriously ill … and was mostly housebound for the last 20 years of her life. Her personal letters and unpublished journals from this time … [show] a compassionate and creative woman who made her sickroom into a garden … and … grew to call herself a poet.”
Polluted Sex by Lauren Foley (Influx Press)
From the synopsis: “A pregnant woman takes the ferry to the UK. … Two ungendered characters contest the same female body. … Lauren Foley’s debut collection of dramatic short stories … is fearless in its depiction of women’s bodies and sexuality, offering an unflinching window into Irish girl and womanhood.”
163 Days by Hannah Hodgson (Seren Books)
From the synopsis: “Hodgson is an award-winning poet and a palliative care patient. In her compelling debut collection … she uses a panoply of medical, legal, and personal vocabularies to explore what illness, death and dying does to a person as both patient and witness. 163 days is the length of Hannah’s longest period of hospitalisation to date.”
Book of Hours: An Almanac for The Seasons of The Soul by Letty McHugh (Self-published, with support from Disability Arts Online)
From the synopsis: “Over the course of the pandemic, a complication with my chronic illness left me alone in a darkened room for three weeks. I drew comfort from an imagined Book of Hours. … Book of Hours is a collection of lyric essay and poetry exploring what it means to have faith, why we chase suffering and how to take solace in small joys.”
Chouette by Claire Oshetsky (Ecco/HarperCollins)
From the synopsis: “When Chouette is born small and broken-winged, Tiny … [is left] on her own to care for a child who seems more predatory bird than baby. … When she discovers that her husband is on an obsessive and increasingly dangerous quest to find a “cure” for their daughter, Tiny must decide whether Chouette should be raised to fit in or to be herself”.
Hybrid Humans: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Man and Machine by Harry Parker (Profile Books/Wellcome Collection)
My blog review excerpt: “Parker was a captain in the British Army in Afghanistan when an IED took his legs. Now he wears prostheses that make him roughly 12% machine. Pain management, PTSD, phantom limbs, foreign body rejection, and deep brain stimulation are other topics in this wide-ranging study that is at the juncture of the personal and political.”
Year of The Tiger: An Activist’s Life by Alice Wong (Vintage Books/PRH)
From the synopsis: “[With] original essays, previously published work, conversations, graphics, photos, commissioned art by disabled and Asian American artists, and more, Alice uses her unique talent to share an impressionistic scrapbook of her life as an Asian American disabled activist, community organizer, media maker, and dreamer.”
This year’s judges are Dr Emmeline Burdett, Lynn Buckle (last year’s winner) and scholar Ray Davis. The shortlist is due out in January and the winner will be announced in February.
Do any of these nominees appeal to you?
Fair Play by Tove Jansson (#NovNov22 Translated Week)
Apart from A Winter Book and The Summer Book, I’m still new to Tove Jansson’s writing for adults, having become most familiar with her Moomins series over the last 11 years. This is a late work, first published in 1989 but not available in English translation (by Thomas Teal; published by Sort Of Books, with an introduction by Ali Smith) until 2007.
Rather like a linked short story collection, it presents vignettes from the lives of two female artists – Mari, a writer and illustrator; and Jonna, a visual artist and filmmaker – who are long-term, devoted partners. Of course, this cannot be read as other than autobiographical of Jansson and her partner of 45 years, Tuulikki Pietilä. There are other specific details drawn from life, too.
What the book does beautifully is recreate the rhythm of life lived alongside another person. The two women have studio space at either end of a large apartment building and meet to watch films (the subject of “Videomania”) and go on trips. Each other’s work is a background hum if no longer a daily keeping-to-task.
Not a lot happens, so not too much stood out; a couple of other favourite stories were “Wladyslaw,” about welcoming a Polish refugee friend, and “In the Great City of Phoenix,” about a stop at an Arizona hotel. The final piece, “The Letter,” however, does present an imminent change: one of the partners is invited on a foreign fellowship and love means a temporary letting go. (Public library)
I also recently read a forthcoming artistic/biographical study of Tove Jansson for Shelf Awareness, to be released by Thames & Hudson on December 6th. As it is also novella-length, it’s a good link between our literature in translation week and next week’s nonfiction focus. Here’s an excerpt from my review:
Tove Jansson: The Illustrators by Paul Gravett
This potted biography of the author best known for the Moomins showcases the development of her artistic style and literary themes. Born at the start of World War I into a family of artists (her father a sculptor, her mother a graphic designer, her brother Lars a collaborator on her comics), Jansson wanted to paint but had limited opportunities as a woman. The book contains a wealth of illustrations – over 100, so nearly one per page – including photographs and high-quality reproductions, many in color and some in black and white, of Jansson’s comics, paintings and book covers. Gravett also probes the autobiographical influences on Jansson’s work, which are particularly clear in her 15 books for adults. A sensitive portrayal of Finland’s most widely translated author, this is itself a work of art.
Review Book Catch-Up: Dennis, Galloway, Leland-St. John and Sampson
Capsule reviews today, of four books I am inexcusably late in reviewing. I have a record of personal experience with species reintroductions, a memoir about living among reindeer herders in the far north of Norway, a set of elegiac poems, and a biography of a Victorian woman poet who struggled with poor health for most of her life.
Restoring the Wild: Sixty Years of Rewilding Our Skies, Woods and Waterways by Roy Dennis
Rewilding is a big buzz word in current nature and environmental writing. Few could be said to have played as major a role in the UK’s successful species reintroduction projects as Roy Dennis, who has been involved with the RSPB and other key organizations since the late 1950s. He trained as a warden at two of the country’s most famous bird observatories, Lundy Island and Fair Isle. Most of his later work was to focus on birds: white-tailed eagles, red kites, and ospreys. Some of these projects extended into continental Europe. He also writes about the special challenges posed by mammal reintroductions; beavers get a chapter of their own. Every initiative is described in exhaustive detail, full of names and dates, whereas I would have been okay with an overview. This feels like more of an insider’s history rather than a layman’s introduction. I have popped it on my husband’s bedside table in hopes that, with his degree in wildlife conservation, he’ll be more interested in the nitty-gritty.
“Tenacity and a long view to the future are important in wildlife conservation.”
“for every successful project that gets the go-ahead, there are others into which people put great effort but which then run up against problems.”
With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.
Dálvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra by Laura Galloway
The title is the word for winter in the Northern Sámi language. Galloway, a journalist, traded in New York City for Arctic Norway after a) a DNA test told her that she had Sámi blood and b) she met and fell for Áilu, a reindeer herder, at a wedding. She enrolled in an intensive language learning course at university level and got used to some major cultural changes: animals were co-workers here rather than pets (like the two cats she brought with her); communal meals and drawn-out goodbyes were not the done thing; and shamans were still active (one helped them find a key she lost). Footwear neatly sums up the difference. The Prada heels she brought “just in case” ended up serving as hammers; instead, she helped Áilu’s mother make reindeer skins into boots. Two factors undermined my enjoyment: Alternating chapters about her unhappy upbringing in Indiana don’t add much of interest, and, after her relationship with Áilu ends, the book feels aimless. However, I appreciated her words about DNA not defining you, and family being what you make it.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
A Raga for George Harrison by Sharmagne Leland St.-John (2020)
Native American poet Sharmagne Leland St.-John’s fifth collection is a nostalgic and bittersweet look at people and places from one’s past. There are multiple elegies for public figures – everyone from Janis Joplin to Virginia Woolf – as well as for some who aren’t household names but have important stories that should be commemorated, like Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy killed during the Soweto Uprising for protesting enforced teaching of Afrikaans in South Africa in 1976. Many of the elegies are presented as songs. Personal sources of sadness, such as a stillbirth, disagreements with a daughter, and ageing, weigh as heavily as tragic world events.
Rhyming and alliteration create inviting rhythms throughout the book, and details of colour and fashion animate poems like “La Kalima.” Leland St.-John remembers meeting street children in Mexico, while bamboo calls to mind time spent in Japan. “Promised Land” is an ironic account of land being seized from natives and people of colour. I especially liked “Things I Would Have Given to My Mother Had She Asked” (some literal and some more abstract), which opens “A piece of my liberal mind. 5 more minutes of my time”, and the sombre “Cat’s Cradle” (“Drenched starlings perch on a cat’s cradle of telephone wires”).
You can read “I Said Coffee” and a few more of her poems online.
With thanks to the author for sending a free e-copy for review.
Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Fiona Sampson
Coming in at under 260 pages, this isn’t your standard comprehensive biography. Sampson instead describes it as a “portrait,” one that takes up the structure of EBB’s nine-book epic poem, Aurora Leigh, and is concerned with themes of identity and the framing of stories. Elizabeth, as she is cosily called throughout the book, wrote poems that lend themselves to autobiographical interpretation – “her body of work creates a kind of looking glass in which, dimly, we make out the person who wrote it,” Sampson asserts.
Nicknamed “Ba,” Elizabeth was born in 1806 and brought up with 11 younger siblings at a Herefordshire estate, Hope End. Her father, Edward, had been born in Jamaica and the family fortune was based on sugar – and slavery. Sampson makes much of this inherited guilt, and also places an emphasis on EBB’s lifelong ill health, which involved headaches, back and side pain, and depression. She also suffered from respiratory complaints. The modern medically minded reader tries to come up with a concrete diagnosis. Tardive dystonia? Post-viral syndrome? The author offers many potential explanations, and notes that her subject was the very type of the Victorian female invalid. She would also suffer from miscarriages, but had one son, Pen. The Brownings were in the unusual position of the wife being the more famous partner.
Sampson draws heavily on correspondence and earnestly interrogates scenes and remembrances, but her use of the present tense is a bit odd for a historical narrative, and I found my casual curiosity about the Brownings wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. However, this did make me eager to try more of EBB’s poetry. I wonder if I still have that copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese in a box in the States?
“Within the continual process of reputation-making and remaking that is literary history, Elizabeth Barrett Browning remains a bellwether for the rising and sinking stock of women writers. … Elizabeth dramatizes the two-way creation of every writing self, from without and from within. That the life of the body both enables and limits the life of the mind is the paradox of the thinking self.”
With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Six Degrees of Separation: From Rodham to The Shadow in the Garden
This month we’re all starting with Rodham. I reviewed this Marmite novel as part of the UK blog tour and was fully engaged in its blend of historical and fictional material. Ultimately, it doesn’t work as well as American Wife because we all know too much about Hillary Clinton, but it was a lot of fun for summer binge reading and is a must for any diehard Curtis Sittenfeld fan.
#1 Late last year I was sent an e-copy of The Book of Gutsy Women by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton for a potential review. I didn’t end up reading it at the time, but I still have it on my Kindle so might get to it someday. Like many, many books that have come out over the last few years, it’s full of mini-biographies of praiseworthy women from history. It seems a bit superfluous and overlong, but if the writing is up to snuff it might still be one to skim.
#2 Speaking of guts, earlier in the year I took perverse glee in reading Gulp by Mary Roach, a tour through the body’s digestive and excretory systems. Here’s a quick question to help you gauge whether the book is for you: does the prospect of three chapters on flatulence make you go “Yesssss!” or “Ew, no. Why?!” I’m in the former camp so, for the most part, found it fascinating. Footnotes on bizarre scientific studies are particularly hilarious.
#3 I’ve read two novels with “Roach” in the title; I didn’t want to use Ian McEwan as a link two months in a row, so I went with the other one: Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga, which is also a good follow-on from #WITMonth as it was originally written in French. I reviewed this harrowing memoir of her Tutsi family’s slaughter during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s for Wasafiri literary magazine in early 2018.
#4 One of the sunny/summer reads I featured last week was The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński. One essay from the middle of the book is called “A Lecture on Rwanda,” which locates the seeds of the 1990s conflict in the independence struggle and peasant revolt of the late 1950s and early 1960s: the Hutu majority caste (85%) was composed of tenant farmers who rebelled against the cattle-owning Tutsi minority (14%).
#5 I’ve read another book by the title The Shadow of the Sun, this one a weak early novel by A.S. Byatt. It’s about a young woman struggling to get out from under the expectations and example of her father, a literary lion.
#6 Staying in the shadows … my top nonfiction read of 2017 was James Atlas’s memoir of the biographer’s profession, The Shadow in the Garden. The book deals with the nitty-gritty of archival research and how technology has changed it; story-telling strategies and the challenge of impartiality; and how we look for patterns in a life that might explain what, besides genius, accounts for a writer’s skill. Even though I knew little about his two main subjects, poet Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, I found the book thoroughly enthralling.
Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! (Hosted the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best; see her intro post.)
Have you read any of my selections?
Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Two Final Wellcome Book Prize Longlist Reviews: Krasnostein & Moshfegh
I’ve now read eight of the 12 titles longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019 and skimmed another two, leaving just two unexplored.
My latest two reads are books that I hugely enjoyed yet would be surprised to see make the shortlist (both ):
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (2017)
I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. For one thing, its subject is still alive and has never been much of a public figure, at least not outside Victoria, Australia. For another, your average biography is robustly supported by archival evidence; to the contrary, this is a largely oral history conveyed by an unreliable narrator. And lastly, whether a biography is critical or adulatory overall, the author usually at least feigns objectivity. Sarah Krasnostein doesn’t bother with that. Sandra Pankhurst’s life is an incredible blend of ordinary and bizarre circumstances and experiences, and it’s clear Krasnostein is smitten with her. “I fall in love … anew each time I listen to her speak,” she gushes towards the book’s end. At first I was irked by all the fawning adjectives she uses for Sandra, but eventually I stopped noticing them and allowed myself to sink into this astonishing story.
Sandra was born male and adopted by a couple whose child had died. When they later conceived again, they basically disowned ‘Peter’, moving him to an outdoor shed and making him scrounge for food. His adoptive father was an abusive alcoholic and kicked him out permanently when he was 17. Peter married ‘Linda’ at age 19 and they had two sons in quick succession, but he was already going to gay bars and wearing makeup; when he heard about the possibility of a sex change, he started taking hormones right away. Even before surgery completed the gender reassignment, Sandra got involved in sex work, and was a prostitute for years until a brutal rape at the Dream Palace brothel drove her to seek other employment. Cleaning and funeral home jobs nicely predicted the specialty business she would start after the hardware store she ran with her late husband George went under: trauma cleaning.
Krasnostein parcels this chronology into tantalizing pieces, interspersed with chapters in which she accompanies Sandra and her team on assignments. They fumigate and clean up bodily fluids after suicides and overdoses, but also deal with clients who have lost control of their possessions – and, to some extent, their lives. They’re hoarders, cancer patients and ex-convicts; their homes are overtaken by stuff and often saturated with mold or feces. Sandra sympathizes with the mental health struggles that lead people into such extreme situations. Her line of work takes “Great compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humour,” she tells Krasnostein; even better if you can “not … take the smell in, ’cause they stink.”
The author does a nice job of staying out of the narrative: though she’s an observer and questioner, there’s only the occasional paragraph in which she mentions her own life. Her mother left when she was young, which helps to explain why she is so compassionate towards the addicts and hoarders she meets with Sandra. Some of the loveliest passages have her pondering how things got so bad for these people and affirming that their lives still have value. As for Sandra herself – now in her sixties and increasingly ill with lung disease and cirrhosis – Krasnostein believes she’s never been unconditionally loved and so has never formed true human connections.
This book does many different things in its 250 pages. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. It’s also simply a terrific read that should draw in lots of people who wouldn’t normally pick up nonfiction. I don’t expect it to advance to the shortlist, but if it does I’ll be not-so-secretly delighted.
A favorite passage:
Sometimes, listening to Sandra try to remember the events of her life is like watching someone reel in rubbish on a fishing line: a weird mix of surprise, perplexity and unexpected recognition. No matter how many times we go over the first three decades of her life, the timeline of places and dates is never clear. Many of her memories have a quality beyond being merely faded; they are so rusted that they have crumbled back into the soil of her origins. Others have been fossilised, frozen in time, and don’t have a personal pull until they defrost slightly in the sunlit air between us as we speak. And when that happens there is a tremor in her voice as she integrates them back into herself, not seamlessly but fully.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
If you’ve read her Booker-shortlisted debut, Eileen, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that Moshfegh has written another love-it-or-hate-it book with a narrator whose odd behavior is hard to stomach. This worked better for me than Eileen, I think because I approached it as a deadpan black comedy in the same vein as Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. Its inclusion on the Wellcome longlist is somewhat tenuous: in 2000 the unnamed narrator, in her mid-twenties, gets a negligent psychiatrist to prescribe her drugs for insomnia and depression and stockpiles them so she can take pill cocktails to knock herself out for days at a time. In a sense this is a way of extending the numbness that started with her parents’ deaths – her father from cancer and her mother by suicide. But there’s also a more fantastical scheme in her mind: “when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay, I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person.”
Ever since she was let go from her job at a gallery that showcases ridiculous modern art, the only people in this character’s life are an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Trevor, and her best (only) friend from college, longsuffering Reva, who keeps checking up on her in her New York City apartment even though she consistently treats Reva with indifference or disdain. Soon her life is a bleary cycle of sleepwalking and sleep-shopping, interspersed with brief periods of wakefulness, during which she watches a nostalgia-inducing stream of late-1990s movies on video (the kind of stuff I watched at sleepovers with my best friend during high school) – she has a weird obsession with Whoopi Goldberg.
It’s a wonder the plot doesn’t become more repetitive. I like reading about routines, so I was fascinated to see how the narrator methodically takes her project to extremes. Amazingly, towards the middle of the novel she gets herself from a blackout situation to Reva’s mother’s funeral – about the only time we see somewhere that isn’t her apartment, the corner shop, the pharmacy or Dr. Tuttle’s office – and this interlude is just enough to break things up. There are lots of outrageous lines and preposterous decisions that made me laugh. Consumerism and self-medication to deaden painful emotions are the targets of this biting satire. As 9/11 approaches, you wonder what it will take to wake this character up to her life. I’ve often wished I could hibernate through British winters, but I wouldn’t do what Moshfegh’s antiheroine does. Call this a timely cautionary tale about privilege and disengagement.
“Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”
“Oh, sleep, nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”
Reva: “you’re not changing anything in your sleep. You’re just avoiding your problems. … Your problem is that you’re passive. You wait around for things to change, and they never will. That must be a painful way to live. Very disempowering.”
And one more that I got out from the library and skimmed:
Murmur by Will Eaves (2018)
The subject is Alec Pryor, or “the scientist.” It’s clear that he is a stand-in for Alan Turing, quotes from whom appear as epigraphs at the head of most chapters. Turing was arrested for homosexuality and subjected to chemical castration. I happily read the first-person “Part One: Journal,” which was originally a stand-alone story (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017), but “Part Two: Letters and Dreams” was a lot harder to get into, so I ended up just giving the rest of the book a quick skim. If this is shortlisted, I promise to return to it and give it fair consideration.
We will announce our shadow panel shortlist on Friday. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews, predictions and reactions.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
The Feather Thief is a delightful read that successfully combines many genres – biography, true crime, ornithology, history, travel and memoir – to tell the story of an audacious heist of rare bird skins from the Natural History Museum at Tring in 2009. Somehow I managed not to hear about it at the time, but it was huge news in terms of museum collections and endangered species crime. The tendrils of this thorny case wind around Victorian explorers, tycoons, and fashionistas through to modern obsessions with music, fly-fishing and refugees.
Author Kirk Wallace Johnson worked for USAID in Iraq, heading up the reconstruction of Fallujah, then founded a non-profit organization rehoming refugees in America. Plagued by PTSD, he turned to fly-fishing as therapy, and this was how he heard about the curious case of Edwin Rist, who stole the bird specimens from Tring to sell the bright feathers to fellow hobbyists who tie elaborate Victorian-style fishing flies.
Rist, from upstate New York, was a 20-year-old flautist studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Since age 11 he’d been fixated on fly-tying, especially old-fashioned salmon ties, which use exotic feathers or ordinary ones dyed to look like them. An online friend told him he should check out Tring – the museum Walter Rothschild’s financier father built for him as a twenty-first birthday present – when he got to London. In 2008 Rist scoped out the collection, pretending to be photographing the birds of paradise for a friend’s book.
A year later he took the train to Tring one summer night with an empty suitcase and a glass cutter, broke in through a window, stole 300 bird skins, and made it back to his flat without incident. The museum only discovered the crime a month later, by accident. Rist sold many feathers and whole birds via a fly-tying forum and on eBay. It was nearly another year and a half before the police knocked on his door, having been alerted by a former law enforcement officer who encountered a museum-grade bird skin at the Dutch Fly Fair and asked where it came from.
Here is where things get really interesting, at least for me. Rist confessed immediately, but a psychological evaluation diagnosed him with Asperger’s; on the strength of that mental health defense he was given a suspension and a large fine, but no jail time, so he graduated from the Royal Academy as normal and auditioned for jobs. The precedent was a case from 2000 in which a young man with Asperger’s who stole human remains from a Bristol graveyard was exonerated.
The book is in three parts: the first gives historical context about specimen collection and the early feather trade; the second is a blow-by-blow of Rist’s crime and the aftermath, including the trial; and the third goes into Wallace’s own investigation process. He started by attending a fly-tying symposium, where he felt like an outsider and even received vague threats: Rist was now a no-go subject for this community. But Wallace wasn’t going to be deterred. Sixty-four bird skins were still missing, and his quest was to track them down. He started by contacting Rist’s confirmed customers, then interviewed Rist himself in Germany and traveled to Norway to meet someone who might have been Rist’s accomplice – or fall guy.
I happened to be a bit too familiar with the related history – I’ve read a lot of books that touch on Alfred Russel Wallace, whose specimens formed the core of the Tring collection, as well as a whole book on the feather trade for women’s hats and the movement against the extermination, which led to the formation of the Audubon Society (Kris Radish’s The Year of Necessary Lies). This meant that I was a little impatient with the first few chapters, but if you are new to these subjects you shouldn’t have that problem. For me the highlights were the reconstruction of the crime itself and Wallace’s inquiry into whether the Asperger’s diagnosis was accurate and a fair excuse for Rist’s behavior.
This whole story is stranger than fiction, which would make it a great selection for readers who don’t often pick up nonfiction, perhaps expecting it to be dry or taxing. Far from it. This is the very best sort of nonfiction: wide-ranging, intelligent and gripping.
The Feather Thief was published in the UK by Hutchinson on April 26th. My thanks to Najma Finlay for the free copy for review.