Natives and Exotics

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9780151012015: Natives and Exotics

A gardener flees the violence of the Clearances in early nineteenth-century Scotland for the Portuguese Azores, unaware that he will have a hand in destroying the earthly paradise he finds there. In 1929 his great-great-granddaughter, helping to settle the wilds of Australia, confronts troubling traces of her country's past. Forty years later her own granddaughter is ravished by the beauty of a South American country her diplomat parents are engaged in despoiling.

In the manner of W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants, the novel follows these three characters, linked by blood and legacy, through four stories that span a period from the discovery of the first dinosaur bones to the unsettling revelation that the continents drift. With cameo appearances by Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, Natives and Exotics is a hypnotic meditation on our passionate, uneasy affair with nature, in which we restlessly search for home.

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Review:

Moving backward through time, Natives and Exotics follows generations of one Australian family as they travel in and out of their native land, becoming "exotics" in faraway places. The first story belongs to Alice, a nine-year-old girl, living in Ecuador in the early '70s with her stepfather, an utterly soulless American diplomat, there to "help" the Ecuadorians, and her mother, vaguely wondering why she had married yet another insensitive man. Alice loves the sights and sounds and feel of Ecuador, but she longs for home. One night her mother talks about Australia. "But when Rosalind said it, there they were, the wattle, bottlebrush, snakes and Banksia man, the pebbled path beneath her feet, Grandma Vi with her thin freckled arms fanning herself with a palm frond. They all still dwelled inside Alice, near her ribs, like pain but not claimable, nothing."

Then it is 1929 and Alice's grandmother, Violet, is living in Adelaide with her new husband, Alf, pregnant with Alice's mother and struggling to pull a recalcitrant root out of the ground. "When she hit it with the side of her spade, the blow rang up her arm. All the same she would have this root. She would claim victory over this root." One native struggling with another for dominion.

In the third story, set in 1822, "English improvements were under way. The land was worth nothing with these Scots on it, so they were being uprooted and shipped over the sea, the land cleared for betterment, for sheep." It was the time of the Clearances, and Violet's great-great-grandfather George, heartbroken and desolate, leaves for St. Michael, a Portugese island in the Atlantic, and many years later, must move again to make way for more "improvements."

The poignant story of this family is one of unlooked-for dislocation, relocation, and homecoming. Here we see the first faint glimmerings of globalization, masquerading under the aegis of progress, re-purposing of land and resources, job creation and other euphemisms for the destruction of place and of people's lives. Jane Alison has captured, in pitch-perfect voice, the pain and confusion, bravery and resilience of generations of one family, striving to bloom where they are planted, in non-native soil. --Valerie Ryan

Book Description:

Published in hardcover by Harcourt, 2005, 0-15-101201-6

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