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Author:
• Saturday, May 29th, 2010

Martin Davies grew up in North West England. He travelled a great deal from the Middle East to India. Today he is a BBC television senior producer and editor and lives in South West London.

His bibliography :
Mrs Hudson and the Spirits Curse published in 2004.
Mrs Hudson and the Malabar Rose published in 2005.
The Conjuror’s Bird published in 2005.
The Unicorn Road published in 2009.

The Conjuror’s Bird is based on historical facts with genuine people from the 18th century like the well-known explorer, botanist and patron of natural sciences, the wealthy Lincolnshire landowner, Baronet Sir Joseph Banks, who was part of Captain James Cook’s first grand voyage around the world on the “Endeavour”, from 1768 to 1771. He was also the unofficial scientific adviser to king George III.

Other known people of the time are Banks’s best friend, Dr. Daniel Carlsson Solander, the Swedish botanist and natural scientist, his Danish friend, Johann Christian Fabricius, professor of natural history and world famous entomologist, and his German friend, the naturalist, ethnologist and travel writer, Johann Georg Forster.

Upon his return to England from Captain Cook’s second expedition in 1774 in the South Seas, Forster offers Banks the well-preserved single specimen of the extinct Ulieta bird.

The novel focuses on the Ulieta bird which became extinct in the 18th century. The extinction of species remains a controversial subject in our 21st century, with its many on-going debates about how humans are destroying the world’s flora and fauna and therefore creating a dangerous unbalance in the ecosystem. A big and serious problem that existed once upon a time and still exists today with apparantly no way of stopping it, unfortunately.

The Conjuror’s Bird intertwines history, romance and thrilling detective pursuit. It’s a biographical fiction mystery novel with literary merit and an engaging, suspenseful story, well-written with intense emotions.

In his novel, the author runs in parallel, by alternating chapters and by using a different typeface, an interlinked story of three centuries: the 18th, the 20th and the 21st, where the past meets the present. The story of the taxidermist, John Fitzgerald, who goes on a detective mission, hunting for the only specimen left of the Ulieta bird, which once belonged to Joseph Banks but disappeared from his collection without any explanation and was never seen again.

If it wasn’t for a coloured drawing done by Forster’s son, Georg, which can be seen in The Natural History Museum in London, no one would have known of its existence. The second story being the love tale of Joseph Banks with the mysterious Miss B—n, the main link being the elusive Ulieta bird and the unknown Miss B. with the striking green eyes, who seems to be the key to finding the long disappeared stuffed bird.

The third story being the discovery of the Congo peacock by James Chapin, the American naturalist,twenty three years after coming across a single peacock feather earlier in the 20th century.

Another link in the novel is the two unfulfilled love stories which stand two centuries apart. The strong and impossible passion that Joseph Banks once shared with Miss B. (Mary Burnett?) who was a woman well ahead of her time in Georgian society, and the infatuation that John Fitzgerald and the ambitiously independent Gabriella used to have for each other. Both loves seem to have ended due to a child, a daughter.

The characters are well depicted, the novel competently structured and a successful amount of research attained. A very pleasant read.

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Author:
• Sunday, January 31st, 2010

Monica Ali was born in 1967 to a Bangladeshi father and an English mother in Dhaka, which was at the time part of East Pakistan. Her parents moved to Bolton in England when she was three years old. Her father became a teacher at the Open University and her mother a counsellor.

Monica Ali attended Bolton Girls’ School, followed by Wadham College in Oxford, where she read Economics, Philosophy and Politics. Currently she lives in South London with her husband and two children.

Monica Ali was short-listed in 2003 for the Man Booker Prize for fiction, for the Guardian First Book Award and for the British Book Awards, Literary Fiction Award, for her first novel Brick Lane, published in June of the same year.

Brick Lane was followed by Alentejo Blue, set in Portugal and published in June 2006, followed by In The Kitchen, published in April 2009. Brick Lane was made into a film, which won a British drama film award in 2007.

The novel and the film created a controversy among the Bangladeshi community living in England because they didn’t recognise themselves in Monica Ali’s negative portrayal of the community as being uneducated, backward and rough, which was considered an insult. They claimed that the novel encouraged “pro-racist, anti-social stereotypes”.

Brick Lane is the story of the Bangladeshi Muslim community living post 9/11 in the East End of London but in particular, the story of Nazneen, her husband Chanu and Hasina, Nazneen’s good looking sister, who lives in Bangladesh and who was disowned by her family for eloping at the age of sixteen with her lover and marrying him. Hasina reveals her chaotic day to day life in Dhaka through a series of regular sweet, naïve and sometimes unintentionally funny, sometimes terribly sad letters sent to her sister in London in pidgin English.

Nazneen often goes back to her childhood in her little village in the countryside of Bangladesh, reminiscing about her happy, innocent and carefree childhood with her younger sister Hasina, which now contrasts with her miserable life in her council flat in a tall block in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

Nazneen arrives in London at the age of eighteen, after an arranged marriage with Chanu, who is already established in London and who is unattractive and twice her age. She can’t speak English and has to adapt to her new life in a foreign country with a husband who, although basically kind-hearted, is frustrated for not being able to fulfil his dreams and carry his plans to fruition. He believes to be above most of the Bangladeshi community who are uneducated and lacking a great deal of culture.

Chanu resents the attitude of his superiors who fail to recognise his talent and ingenuity. He considers himself to be a gem in the rough and has a high opinion of himself which makes him a pompous, funny character despite his lucidity and his awareness of the conflict between the first and second generation immigrants, which, to his horror, was portrayed by his eldest daughter Shahana and which made him decide to repatriate his whole family back to Bangladesh.

The strong element of fate which is overwhelming in the novel is challenged, first by rebellious Hasina, who took her fate into her own hands by eloping with the man she loved and then by the submissive Nazneen who goes through different emotional conflicts: the never ending quest for fate and free will, her religious up-bringing and the cultural differences she faces by being a Muslim living in a secular big city.

She carried out small rebellious acts at the beginning of her marriage but her aspiration for autonomy started with her attraction to the handsome, young political enthusiast, Karim, which evolved into a physical and pecuniary independence and the discovery of her freedom of choice in a male dominated community.

The eighteen-year old, once subdued and obedient wife, matures into a forthright independent woman. She discovers her own force and will power, something she was unaware of. She will not be controlled by fate, she will take her own decisions, like not following her husband by going back home. She will remain in London, she will work and look after herself and her two daughters.

Nazneen believes in herself now and knows that she is capable of taking charge of her own destiny.

Brick Lane is a contemporary, and humane story, the characters are shown with all their complexities and are described realistically and in detail whether it’s Mrs Islam, the hypochondriac, evil and manipulative usurer, or Razia the friendly and strong will-powered neighbour, or Shahana, the refractory, provocative and westernised teenage-daughter, or the sweet second daughter, little Bibi who is even tempered, quiet and hard working.

Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is a post-colonial novel written with a great deal of compassion and optimistic hope.