Jonathan Raban's Waxwings is a canticle for the late 1990s told through the intertwined lives of several Seattlites. In the novel, the city becomes a microcosm of America at the turn of the millennium, and Raban's characters--all in some way tragic "tourists" in the world--are rendered with a compassion that redeems their personal failings.
Thomas Janeway is a British novelist and professor of literature at the University of Washington whose life is coming apart in his adopted home. He deeply loves his four-year-old son, Finn, but his wife, Beth, is caught up in the dot-com explosion, and the couple has grown apart. As Seattle erupts in the WTO riots and terrorist plots, Janeway's life crumbles around him. His wife leaves him, his house becomes a shambles of half-completed reconstruction, and his son is caught fighting in school. When he becomes a "person of interest" in the abduction and possible murder of a local girl, he is put on leave with pay from the university. Yet, Raban does not let Janeway--or any of his characters--wallow in self-pity. They all try to move forward with life, and even Janeway "the suspect" finds sympathetic allies in surprising places.
At one point in the novel, Janeway lectures his students on the "generosity" of V.S. Pritchett, saying that the writer believed "in a general redistribution of verbal wealth, in taking good lines from the haves, and giving them to the have-nots." This "liberal realism" also characterizes Raban's work. Raban treats all of his characters, from Janeway to Finn, with patience and balance. He fully inhabits each and tells fragments of the story from the perspective of Beth, Tom, Finn, and even Tom's illegal-immigrant contractor, Chick. One narrative infuses another, lending the novel a Dickensian universality. Together the disparate voices perfectly capture the particulars of a place, Seattle, at a unique moment in American history. --Patrick O'Kelley