In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

September 2018

 - Monday, September 03, 2018
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai takes you back to Chicago in the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was starting to lay waste to part of a generation. At the story’s centre are art curator, Yale, and Fiona, the younger sister of his late friend Nico. Yale is an endearing character—he is on the brink of making a tremendous coup with a bequest of 1920s artworks; this takes us into some unlikely territory as the owner of the art recounts the provenance of each piece. Thirty years later, we find Fiona in Paris looking for her estranged daughter who seems to have disappeared into a cult. Fiona should be more likeable than she is—I found it very hard to feel sympathetic towards her, perhaps all the loss she has sustained has emptied her out—it’s like she’s a shell of a person. In fact a lot of the secondary characters are more memorable than the protagonists—which adds to the dissonance of the book. Given the tragic subject matter, I found the book didn’t really affect me—although Makkai does give an overview of the impact the epidemic had on a whole generation, and those that followed. Ostensibly like Hanya Yanagiha’s A Little Life, it lacks the resonance of that novel, as well as its more prurient details. 

The Feather Thief  by Kirk Wallace Johnson is a compelling true mystery of the highest order. Wallace was suffering from PTSD after years of refugee work in Iraq, when he was told about a heist of rare bird skins from the Tring Natural History Museum in London. The thief was a 20 year old musician, Edwin Rist—a master ‘fly-tier’ who sold the feathers online to other fly-tiers around the world. What ensues is an incredible tale of greed and obsession, with an almost unbelievable conclusion. Johnson delves into the extraordinary world of bird collecting, and the horrible, and thankfully now outmoded, fashion of wearing feathers. But it’s the extremely weird world of the fly-tiers that is the darkest—Johnson is clearly discomforted by many of the tiers that he meets—and their blatant disregard of the origin of the bejewelled feathers that fuels the industry.
Not only is this a ripping yarn, but a wonderful look at 19th century expeditions to find rare specimens. Many of the stolen birds had been collected by Alfred Russell Wallace, a colleague of Charles Darwin. The fact that a lot of the tags on these birds had been pulled off by the feather thief, therefore rendering them of no further scientific value, just adds to the sense of delinquency of the theft. I felt quite indignant by the end of the book—I certainly was not expecting to feel so involved with the feathers, and their collective fate. This is a terrific book. Louise