"The first beast I laid eyes on was my father." Xeno Atlas is obsessed. He is obsessed with his dead mother, with his emotionally and physically distant father who blames Xeno for his mother's death, with his very much alive shape-shifting Sicilian grandmother, and with animals both real and imaginary. The protagonist of Nicholas Christopher's new and anxiously awaited novel, The Bestiary, Atlas' obsessions focus themselves into his lifelong academic search for the long lost Caravan Bestiary, a record of all of the animals created, including those that did not make it onto Noah's Ark.
As a boy growing up in the Bronx Xeno Atlas (his Cretan father tells him he was named after the Greek word "xenos," or stranger; while his Italian mother saw him as her "xenium," or gift) has a hard time finding his place in the world. With no real connection to his family and very few good friends, he defines his world in terms of animals. "I felt the spirits of animals. In the instants of entering or leaving sleep I caught glimpses of them: an upturned snout, a lizard eye, a glinting talon, the flash of a wing…. And at dawn they were gone."
I typically love novels that are set up in this way. Give me some ancient history, a pinch of academia, psychological trauma, lots of exotic travel (Vietnam, Hawaii, Paris, Africa, Italy, Greece), a good book to hunt, and many levels of story and I am just happy as can be. I loved AS Byatt's Possession and Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, and I fully expected to love this.
But something falls flat here. There is almost too much detail, too much jumping from place to place, and the narrative could move a bit more quickly. Christopher ties up the loose ends and finishes all of the stories he starts, but this book was unexpectedly difficult for me to finish. The Bestiary has all of the elements of a fabulous fantasy/reality tale, but they just don't quite pull together.
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