Here's some ideal holiday reading for all family history lovers (and it's available as an e-book too). I just loved this book, which combines all the genres so dear to the heart of a family history writer such as myself - history, mystery and romance. The Conjuror's Bird by the British author Martin Davies was first published in 2005, and I recommended it to my book club group in Melbourne in 2010. Now I'm recommending it to anyone who'll identify strongly with Davies’ account of turning up at Archives offices at opening time and sitting there all day searching for the identity of the mysterious 'Miss B'. Davies perfectly depicts the excitement in the search for the identity of an elusive forebear.
On Goodreads there are plenty of descriptions of the premise of this book, with plenty of four star reviews by a reading audience based in the northern hemisphere and largely ignorant of the work of Sir Joseph Banks (those outside UK botanical circles, I mean). I think this book resonates even better with an Australian audience, especially Sydneysiders such as myself (originally). Banks is very ‘big’ in Sydney.
I much preferred the Banks chapters in the book, which alternated with chapters set in modern times. The hypothetical romance for Joseph Banks was quite moving and even convincing, given society’s rules of the day. Banks reputedly had plenty of affairs but never married; it makes sense that a female of serious demeanour and purpose, and equally scientifically-minded as he, had spoilt his taste for the frivolous women of his own class as wifely candidates. [Correction - the Sir Joseph Banks Society Magazine, Summer 2017 says he married in 1779.] Davies’ version of events changed my mind about Banks – hitherto I did not think much of him as a person, because of the drama he created over his personal cabin space aboard the Resolution, resulting in his last-minute withdrawal in 1772 from Cook’s second expedition to the South Seas. Now I can see that there could have been another side to the Banks story.
In the alternate chapters, I found the narrative about an academic named Fitzgerald (Fitz) a bit disjointed and sometimes hard to follow, and the characters not always convincing. The bits about Fitz’s grandfather seemed to hang in space a bit, and Fitz’s connection to the young graduate student Katya seemed very shadowy.
The history of the later eighteenth century intrigues me. So much changed in the world – the ascent of scientific enquiry (eg the Longitude story), the age of cultural enlightenment, the start of the industrial revolution, the growth of democratic government (independence of USA, French Revolution). My early convict forebears who came on First and Second Fleet add a personal connection to this period, as do forebears who helped establish the mail coach system in England in the 1780s and 1790s. That particular communications revolution underpinned the rapid growth of the British economy. Another direct forebear, Dr George Young, established the first Botanic Garden in the western hemisphere, on the Island of St Vincent in the Caribbean in the 1760s. Young was present when the breadfruit tree arrived from the Pacific, so I have personal, albeit remote, connections to William Bligh and Joseph Banks.
For me, as a family history writer, this book was a page-turner. It was very clever of novelist Martin Davies to think of weaving the different strands of his story together in the way he did. And very clever of him to piece together the missing links in the life of Sir Joseph Banks and come up with the imaginative narrative he produced in the book. Oh to be so creative with my own historical research – but I fear that the lifelong habits of a non-fiction writer run deep. As an author, the title of a book always attracts my attention, but I’m still not quite sure why the book was entitled The Conjuror’s Bird. Who was the conjuror? Did the title of the book refer to its final twist in the tale? I don't want to spoil the ending of the book for readers - so I won't speculate here!