Jonathan Raban’s powerful novel is set in Seattle in 1999, at the height of its infatuation with the virtual. It’s a place that attracts immigrants. One of these is Tom Janeway, a bookish Hungarian-born Englishman who makes his living commenting on American mores on NPR. Another, who calls himself Chick, is a frenetically industrious illegal alien from China who makes his living any way he can.
Through a series of extraordinary but chillingly plausible events, the paths of these newcomers converge. Tom is uprooted from his marriage and must learn to father his endearing eight-year old son part-time. Chick claws his way up from exploited to exploiter. Meanwhile Seattle is troubled by rioting anarchists, vanishing children, and the discovery of an al-Qaeda operative; it is a city on the brink. Savage and tender, visionary and addictively entertaining, Waxwings is a major achievement.
This is a generous, affirming novel. By its end, the self-obsessed novelist comes to embrace life, its hardships as well as its possibilities. We don't believe he'll live happily ever after, but we do believe that for all its troubles it will be a life worth living. This is equally true of Chick's life, despite its containing hardships of a magnitude most Westerners are unlikely to encounter. Geoff Nicholson