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book review: the conjurer’s bird


It’s been a long while since I’ve reviewed a book here. In fact, it’s been a long while since I’ve read an entire book, especially a novel. I received The Conjurer’s Bird as a gift, and found it great bedtime reading.

A British academic, a former expert on extinct birds, is contacted by a former colleague. This colleague has hooked up with a modern-day treasure hunter of sorts who is interested in finding the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta. The bird was originally discovered by Captain James Cook’s second South Seas expedition in 1772, and known only from a painting, as the specimen is presumed lost. The story develops as several people believe the specimen can be relocated.

Concurrently, in alternating chapters, author Martin Davies tells the story of the naturalist Joseph Banks, who once possessed the Ulieta bird in his collections. Usually, I find back-and-forth narratives tedious, particularly if they leap from one era to another. Davies handled this well, however, and of course we await for clues to fall into place in history to solve the mystery of the present. As I read, I thought the story of Banks and his young mistress fairly improbable. I have a bad habit of reading all the author’s notes and acknowledgments before I finish a book. I happened not to do that this time, and when I finished the book and read the section on the historical background for the book, I learned that there is indeed a Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, and that Davies firmly rooted this book in fact — including the story of Banks and his mistress. His weaving of fiction around these facts was actually a great and plausible explanation for historical events. I enjoyed the book on its own, but once I learned how it meshed with actual events, I found myself delighted and impressed. It prompted me to crack open my copy of Errol Fuller’s excellent volume Extinct Birds and read up on this and other birds we have lost to time…or just plain lost!

The Conjurer’s Bird will appeal to mystery lovers, natural history buffs, and fans of historical fiction (I am all of the above). It’s also currently bargain priced at Amazon: a can’t miss buy.

Filed in Books