May 13, 2016
by Emily Donaldson
We can thank Conrad and Twain – or rather, their entrenchment in various school curricula – for making the river journey in novels something we view as symbolic by default. Literary rivers are facilitators of inner transformation, rolling conveyor belts into human nature. The freight their rafts, canoes and steamboats carry is, everybody knows, psychological, subconscious.
In her new book, in which three Americans journey down the Amazon’s Rio Negro, in 1867, ostensibly for science but ultimately for self-discovery, Alissa York (Effigy, Fauna etc.) readily succumbs to this tradition. She deserves points, however, for making the reality of the physical river, and the explorations it enables, part of The Naturalist’s main feast.
The titular naturalist is Walter Ash of Philadelphia who, though recently dead when the novel begins, appears throughout it by means of reminiscences and journal entries. Walter’s son, Paul, is also a budding naturalist at Harvard, though he’s not (sorry) a natural at it like his father. He gets seasick in calm waters, throws up during dissections.
What Paul really loves is literature. Reading Alexander von Humboldt, he feels guilty about his “habit of seeking the veins of pure narrative in the bedrock of a scientific work.” He likes to fish, but still prefers “Mr. Coleridge’s water snakes or Mr. Melville’s white behemoth to any creature he might haul up from the depths himself.”
Paul is a book nerd in a household of reptile nerds. In his journals, Walter wrote, “Any woman might marvel at a feather, but it takes a special turn of mind to appreciate a scale.” And indeed, Walter had a special appreciation for the latter kind of gal. His first wife, a woman of Brazilian and native extraction who died giving birth to Paul, gained his affections through her effortless killing of a bushmaster on his first trip to the Amazon. The same chemistry was there with his second wife, Iris, a wealthy brewery heiress and specimen painter who’d thrilled to Walter’s iguana, Lucy, crawling up her skirts when she came to visit his scruffy rooms (an image conjuring Max Ernst’s creepy Victorians).
Rachel Weaver, meanwhile, the young Quaker farmgirl who acts as the couple’s assistant and companion, caught Iris’s eye when she passed over the religious texts at a bookstore to beeline for a volume on herpetology. Recognizing, through Rachel’s Quaker plain-speech “thous” and “thees,” a kindred spirit, Iris invited her to come read the other five volumes at her mansion.
Walter’s sudden death comes on the eve of a trip to the Amazon, where he and Iris were to collect reptiles for the ambitious terrarium they’d been constructing. When Iris makes clear her determination to go ahead with the expedition, Paul, who’s never seen the birthplace his father took him from 20 years earlier, decides to come along.
Notwithstanding Paul’s belief that “the jungle changed [my] father’s head,” the Amazon serves to magnify, rather than transform, York’s characters’ true selves. More interestingly, it fails – York playing against expectation here – to “awaken” any latent cultural instinct in Paul, whose dark skin, black hair and muscular build had him suffer “red Indian” taunts as a child.
This has a slightly slapstick quality. Paul struggles with Portuguese, leaving Rachel, humiliatingly, to translate for him. He’s a lousy shot with a gun. The local food turns his stomach so much that a visit to a fish market is like a horror show: “catfish in black armour beside what look to be salmon with fangs; fish like cudgels, like blades. Everywhere, great reeking slabs of pirarucu.”
In Rachel, on the other hand, Paul sees “something effortless, something ingrained, about the way she crouched at the river’s edge, sharpening sticks … She walks up from the riverbank, skirts muddied, hands brilliant with fishy-smelling blood.” Her farm skills prove useful in the tropical setting, where she wrings, without thinking, the neck of an injured macaw. “I …we had chickens,” she blurts.
This nature-versus-nurture dialectic is largely what powers the novel, York mercifully privileging tempered individualism over the slippery slope of blood ties and race. That said, a (for want of a better term) genealogical epiphany Paul has while recovering from a stingray bite at the home of his Brazilian aunt undermines this, and the novel’s otherwise rationalist demeanour, somewhat bizarrely.
As Iris funnels her grief into her illustrations, Rachel makes ever-bolder forays into the jungle with their Indian guide. That she sees everywhere evidence of Walter’s beloved Darwinist natural-selection theory tests her faith. But the Amazon is also, for her, a kind of Eden, one where a snake – specifically, an anaconda the length of their boat – doesn’t offer temptation, it is the temptation. She’s so taken with the visual rapture of its awesomeness, in fact, that she forgets to summon Iris, who sulks jealously for days about missing it.
Thinly plotted, The Naturalist showcases, instead, York’s admirable powers of description (the jungle is “like the life’s work of a mad giant, an obsessive, territorial monster armed with a ball of twine”). Yet it often reads more like great travel writing than great fiction. York, more often than not, errs on the side of narrative subtlety. The fact of two unattached American women, one of them stunningly beautiful (Iris), cruising the Amazon with several local men isn’t exploited in obvious ways, for example. And while that’s suspense of a kind, other pulse-quickening opportunities are left ungrasped.
The Naturalist is a well-written book with a good heart; one I wished was a little darker.