by Nicholas Christopher
"If we find in the depiction of an animal an uplifting or penetrating symbol, we should not worry whether that creature really exists, or if it ever existed." - St. Augustine
Xeno Atlas was a neglected child, raised by his grandmother who told him about the animal spirits who haunt the world. So many animals die every day that the air is thick with them. Some people have animal spirits inside them, or were animals in another life.
Xeno has had glimpses of mysterious animals since he was a child, from the gargoyle from a city building that appeared at his window one night, to the fox present when his grandmother died. When he learns of an ancient book called the Caravan Bestiary, a book about the strange animals who were denied entrance to Noah's ark, he makes it his life's mission to find this book. His quest spans several decades, and several countries, and along the way he is confronted with the ubiquitous symbolic world of animals and animal imagery. In his search for the book, he finds himself and his place in the world.
This is exactly how I wish all actual memoirs were written. Each event mentioned is highly, if quietly, significant and echoes of it reverberate back and forth throughout the book. The child is abandoned when he is young, but there is less of a sense of sickly despair or resignation as an ownership and adaption. I understand that this is fiction, and the memoirs were real, so it is difficult to write about what you do not feel, but my GOD this book was refreshing.
Christopher treads the fine line between realism and fantasy. He has mystical, beautiful events that may or may not have happened, but he lets the reader judge. Xeno lives in the real world, but a world filled with wonder and mystery.
His quest for the Caravan Bestiary becomes incredibly academic, but still gripping, as your heart soars with each clue he discovers. I became quite jealous as he was able to devote his life to medieval academia in little flats he rented in Paris, Venice, and Greece. Seems perfect to me!
His life surrounding the quest for the Caravan Bestiary is also beautifully constructed. As his father never sees him, he creates his own family, a boy named Bruno who is a sickly biology genius hell-bent on keeping animals from extinction, and Bruno's sister, Lena, a gentle, reserved veterinarian. Occasionally, his life is shattered and he has to pick up the pieces.
The story weaves back and forth from light to dark, from heaven to hell, and the sharp contrast makes each more acutely felt. The one small thing that irked me about the book was that Christopher seemed to be foreshadowing a sinister event that never came. I wonder if anyone else had the same experience?