Mixed Plate Special is the new media venture of Hawai’i writer Catharine Lo, an artistic, moving chronicle of modern life in the Hawaiian Islands featuring stories from Hawai’i’s people. Much of the site content comes from readers, mirroring the new media paradigm shift. “Our media is how we interpret the world,” writer Lo, “and your perspective matters.”
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Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Forget critics’ comparisons to the The Da Vinci Code or the plot’s seeming sci-fi/fantasy genre—Nicholas Christopher’s fifth novel may have a healthy dose of whimsy but it’s no standard adventure story. The Bestiary is instead a well-imagined, meticulously researched, lyrical tale not only of the mythical foundations of society but of one man’s inner journey to find his place in the world.
Xeno Atlas, the book’s narrator and shy, quiet hero, is introduced inside the dark Bronx apartment where he is raised with his Sicilian grandmother’s fairy tales and the rare presence of his father—a reticent shipman from Crete whom Xeno calls “the first beast I laid eyes on.” If that first line weren’t enough, Christopher’s beautiful rendering of the nature and impact of his father’s distance affirms readers’ careful attention and compassion for his son:
“He had a disarming method of keeping you uninformed: he maintained a silence so profound that when he did share a few elusive facts, it felt like a deluge, until later you realized he had told you nothing.”
It’s no wonder the prose captivates from the start, or that Xeno retreats from this painful experience into his imagination. But in high school, this childhood coping device morphs into an isolating obsession with researching real and imagined animals. Before long Xeno is consumed with finding the elusive and rumored destroyed Caravan Bestiary—an apocryphal book (invented by Christopher) detailing the extraordinary creatures refused passage on Noah’s Ark.
But this simple design, based in small part on Christopher’s own upbringing, belies a more complex plot of cerebral, emotional and spiritual discovery; for Xeno is not merely seeking a rare book and its accompanying academic success but, like us all, searching for something lost within himself. The novel’s swift yet spotless pace spans centuries of global history and alights in places like Maine, Venice, Honolulu and Moloka‘i, but these are just intriguing backdrops for a deeper exploration of Xeno’s painful and isolated upbringing and adulthood.
When, after Xeno is wounded in Viet Nam, the novel stops in Hawai`i—Christopher is a frequent visitor—he recovers his passion for the Caravan Bestiary but also connects with his enigmatic teacher and heals physical and spiritual war wounds. When in Sicily he finds clues about the book, he also discovers his heritage. And in a novel filled with beastly people as well as animals, it is above all humans—particularly three-dimensional characters like his best friend Bruno and secret love Lena, who grow up believably as the novel unfolds—and their actions that define the arc and meaning of his journey.
An undeniable accomplishment of detail and imagination, The Bestiary is grounded in historical and scientific fact—including extinction, animals rights and religion—yet in the end, Xeno’s dreams help him uncover something magical in the world and right in front of him. This delicate plaiting of imagination and reality blurs their boundaries, convincing readers to see the real as fantastical and the magical as believable. As Xeno reflects, “In a world of infinite metamorphoses—only a fraction of which we’re privy to—who can cleanly separate the fantastical from the commonplace?” More importantly, the novel asks: “Who would want to?”