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Creation

by Katherine Govier

The whole bird-watching phenomenon is hard to get your head around: hordes of Tilley-hatted boomers, loaded down with binoculars and zoom lenses, travelling great distances in hot pursuit of … a bird. That single-mindedness is at the heart of Katherine Govier’s seventh novel, Creation. In her fictional account, she follows Jean Jacques Audubon through the summer of 1833, when he sails on a guano-smeared ship through the pitiless fog and wind to the nesting grounds of seabirds along the Labrador coast.

Audubon, of course, is the 19-century artist who was obsessed with his grand project: painting life-size portraits of every bird species – 435 in all – in North America. The paintings were collected in his masterpiece book, The Birds of America.

Govier analyzes Audubon’s audacious vision in depth. The first motive she finds for his quest is easy to discern: fame. In Creation, Audubon declares, “I wanted not just to be the greatest bird artist of my time, but to be known in the world as such. I am. But there is a hollowness now. Fame has consumed my entrails, and played upon the falseness that was in me.”

That hollowness and falseness came to Audubon early. He was born in Haiti – or Santo Domingo as it was known then – the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a maid. His mother died when he was six months old and he was raised in France by his father’s wife. About to be conscripted into Napoleon’s army at age 18, he fled to one of his father’s properties near Philadelphia. He spent much of his life trying to outrun his history, passing himself off as American or European, the son of a high-ranking admiral, always in a cold-sweat fear of being unmasked as a bastard Creole.

Audubon’s other driving force – his love of birds – is more complex. And therein lies the central paradox that Govier deftly explores throughout the book: Audubon is passionate about birds and the wildness they embody, yet at every turn he destroys their wildness. He risks terrible seas, scrambles over cliffs, sees his son nearly plummet to his death in search of birds thriving in their natural habitat, yet he coolly shoots birds by the dozen and wires them into the lifelike shapes he was renowned for reproducing. He shudders at stories of Great Auks burned alive as kindling and mourns the 800 dozen eggs the “eggers” have crammed into a foul hold, but feasts on them nevertheless.

Even as awareness dawns – the notion that when you seek wildness you can destroy it, and the birds he loves were most certainly being destroyed – Audubon shoulders his gun and, laughing, slaughters 27 puffins just because he can. Perhaps, as Govier writes, “It is too much for one man to know.” Throughout the book, he confides in Bayfield, a captain in the Royal Navy who is charting the dangerous coast. Bayfield is learned, well born, meticulous – everything Audubon is not, and so the perfect foil.

Govier’s research is exacting (in her acknowledgments, she thanks experts on sea shanties and hydrographical surveying), but at times it’s difficult to remember this is not a biography, but an imagined tale pinned down by facts. Most intriguing of these facts is that while all of Audubon’s journeys are well documented, this northern trip is not. It is, as Govier suggests, as if a censorious granddaughter had inherited the journals and documents concerning the voyage and was so displeased by their contents that she burned them.

Govier theorizes that Audubon was alternately pleased and tortured by the way he clipped the wings of both birds and women. (Of course there are women: he is fond of his wife, Lucy, but besotted with Maria, his young assistant back in Charleston.) As Audubon dissects his specimens to see what is the essential birdness of a bird, Govier tries to analyze the Great Man.

The results are mixed: the writing is eloquent, the storyteller’s voice is sure. Audubon is a fascinating and meaty character, and yet as a reader, it is hard to feel engaged. The story becomes fogbound, too, at times – they sail, they find birds, they are trapped, they sail again. In the end, Creation, a story about a compulsion, just isn’t as compelling as it should be.