Once upon a time, John Fitzgerald used to be an up-and-coming naturalist, dedicated to his conservation work in the Brazilian rainforest and his research on extinct bird specimens. Fifteen years on, the notes for his book lie untouched in a locked chest in a corner of his study, and he now devotes his time to taxidermy and to giving dull lectures at the university. He lives alone, haunted by the past and the face in the photograph that stands on his bedside table – he hardly even knows what his lodger looks like.
Then, one night, the phone rings and a voice he never expected to hear again speaks his name. It is Gabriella, the beautiful woman who is inextricably linked with his past. She is in London and she wants to see him. The next day, when Fitzgerald meets up with Gabriella, she introduces him to Karl Anderson, a famous Norwegian collector. It turns out they want his help in tracing The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, a unique specimen brought back from Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Seas in 1774 and which disappeared from Joseph Banks’ collection a few years later, never to be heard of again. Now, Anderson and Gabriella think they have a lead, but they need Fitzgerald’s expertise in the field of extinct birds. But Fitzgerald doesn’t like Anderson, and he obstinately refuses to give him the help he requires.
The conversation with Gabriella and Anderson lingers in his mind, however, rekindling long-forgotten interests. When twice someone breaks into his house and raids his study, Fitzgerald decides to do a little investigating of his own, if only to determine the identity of the intruder and give him a piece of his mind. He is helped by his lodger, Katya, who turns out to be an unlooked-for ally and friend. Together they search the National History Museum, the British Library, the London archives, and the Lincolnshire countryside around Joseph Banks’ family home, in the hope of finding some clue as to the fate of the Ulieta bird. Gradually, they piece together a story that involves not only Captain Cook and Joseph Banks, but a certain Miss B., referred to as Banks’ mistress in 1774, who disappeared from the records as mysteriously as the famous bird.
Fitzgerald becomes obsessed with uncovering the identity of the unknown mistress, convinced that she is the vital clue that will lead him to The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta. At the same time, he cannot help reflecting with a touch of wryness that he may be as touched in the head as his grandfather, whose ill-fated search for the African peacock through the jungles of the Congo unfolds parallel to his and Banks’ stories. For though plenty of people are hot on the trail of the Ulieta bird – Karl Anderson, an American antiques dealer called Potts, and a Canadian pharmaceutical mogul who is prepared to pay a hefty sum to get his hands on the bird – nobody but Fitzgerald seems remotely interested in Miss B., and more than once, his search takes on the aspect of a wild goose chase.
I was completely engrossed by the world of eighteenth-century scientific discoveries: the detailed preparations for Captain Cook’s two expeditions, the ships, the special equipment stored on board for the naturalists, the dangers of the voyages themselves and the thrill of exploring uncharted land. I was fascinated by Joseph Banks’ remarkable work, and that of the other naturalists and botanists who accompanied him, painting, sketching, and chronicling for posterity the marvels they came across half a world away from their native shores. Yet it was the book’s subject matter – the life of Joseph Banks, and the true story of the rather ordinary little brown bird whose origins and fate remain a mystery to this day – which interested me, rather than the book itself. All the ingredients for a great tale are there, but I couldn’t stop thinking of what A. S. Byatt might have made of it had she had the telling of it rather than Martin Davies: despite his efforts, his characters have no depth to them, and for a detective story, it is singularly lacking in suspense. It was a pleasant enough read but quite honestly, why it became a bestseller is something I will never fully comprehend.
© Florence Berlioz 2011