This book had been sitting on Mt TBR for over two years before I finally got around to reading it the other week. It started off well, and I was enjoying it, but it seemed to run out steam a bit, or perhaps I did, and it took me far longer than I would have liked to finish it. It is well written, ludicrously funny in places, and yet it never really sparked for me.
Francis Wills is a professor at Oxford University in the 1890s. He specialises in birdsong, in particular that of the nightingale. He had an unusual childhood, to put it mildly, eventually attending Oxford in the 1870s where he met and became friends with both Oscar Wilde, and Cecil Rhodes (referred to throughout as ‘The Colossus’). It is through this friendship with Rhodes that he finds himself in South Africa in 1899, with a cargo of songbirds. Rhodes wants to introduce nightingales to the Cape and Wills is the man to do it. Unfortunately he has demanded Wills bring the birds in May, at the start of the South African winter, and the confused birds refuse to sing.
We also meet the Kipling family, in flashback, Wilde himself, and Charles Dodgeson with his predilection for photographing little girls in various states of undress.
The story is told partly in the present tense in ‘current time’ 1899, as if it were a diary, and partly in flashback, in past tense. These flashbacks illuminate various parts of the protagonist’s life. Later in the novel there is also a section where it is apparent that the protagonist is looking back on the events of 1899 from a point perhaps in about 1910.
Harries has clearly done a lot of research both on the literary figures she ropes into her plot – Wilde, Kipling and Dodgeson – and into the political controversies in South Africa at the outbreak of the Boer War. And yet, as I say it failed to spark for me. Perhaps it will for you.