This novel tells two stories, and manages to maintain suspense despite the fact that they are being told in the same book, and thus clearly connected. In fact there's a third tale nested within the present-day narrative, and the roles in that aren't as clear-cut as they appear at first. And yet, I didn't find the novel a success. It should have worked better than it does, and I think the lack is in the prose, and perhaps in the marriage of fast-paced thriller with measured historical love story.
Davies links a few historical facts -- the mysterious Ulieta bird, of which only a single drawing exists; a 'gentleman' who waited at Madeira for Joseph Banks, and was clearly female; Banks' broken engagement, and his nameless mistress -- and weaves them into a story which is compelling and credible. Banks doesn't really come to life, but his mistress is tenderly drawn and her story unfolded at a measured pace.
Meanwhile in the present, there's John 'Fitz' Fitzgerald, an expert in extinct birds; his lodger Katya, a Swedish student; his ex, Gabby, a dedicated ecologist and conservationist; and Karl, Gabby's new lover, who is determined to track down a rumoured specimen of the Ulieta bird -- one known to have been in the possession of Joseph Banks -- and make his fortune. Does he want it for a DNA bank being put together by a reclusive Canadian millionaire, or for the personal glory of finding it? Either way, he enlists Fitz's help: and so does Mr Potts, an American whose agenda has more to do with money than with rarity or conservation.
The prose never really comes to life. The modern sections read like a run-of-the-mill thriller, with occasional sloppy writing: "feet in black tights had crept from their shoes and were curled up discreetly on the red leather sofas", et cetera. The historical sections are written in a solemn, rather bland style, no contractions and few commas. There are occasional brilliant images, but on the whole they merely distract from the surrounding material.
The plot is clever enough, revolving around letters and sketches and chance meetings: Davies also offers a very credible explanation for Banks' famous fit of temper, refusing to join Cook's second expedition over a matter of cabin space. But there are at least two elements which only work, only surprise, because information has been withheld that could reasonably have been expected to be revealed. (For example, Banks knows his mistress's surname, but never uses it when thinking or speaking of her or her family.)
Entertaining and thought-provoking, but could have been so much better.