by Jem Poster
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
What is natural and what is unnatural become dangerously confused in Rifling Paradise. Set in the morally confined atmosphere of Victorian England and Australia, it opens with a community venting its fury over Charles Redbourne's disastrous relationship with a teenaged boy. Their attitude to the beatings the boy suffered from his mother: "That's natural, and what's natural does no harm to a youngster."
Fleeing their wrath, Charles embraces his long-deferred dream of collecting exotic bird specimens—becoming a naturalist. A relative's friend in Australia extends an invitation and, with unsettling speed, arranges an expedition. The man's daughter, an artist as exceptional as she is untutored, disapproves. "You'll take the skin back to England with you and you'll lay it in your cabinet with a label round its neck.... This is a crimson lory, you'll say. But it won't be true. You know that as well as I do, Mr Redbourne. Whatever it is you imagine you're laying hold of—for yourself, for your precious science—it's gone the moment you pull the trigger." Charles does know it, but suppresses his qualms until, deep in the extraordinary beauty of the bush with the angry guide who has been foisted upon him and a fey, half-Aborigine boy, he discovers how little he knows about the distinctions between natural and unnatural, real and unreal, maturity and immaturity.
Violence seethes perpetually just below the surface, all the more powerful for the author's restraint as the reader continually encounters its traces in memory and on flesh, feeling the threat of it in various characters' words, gestures and facial expressions, seeing it erupt in ways that, though they fall short of the full horror humans are capable of, are yet horrible enough to break the heart. Rifling Paradise is one of those historical novels that continually confronts us with our present world, the world created out of the brutality and disaster of the past but also out of its graces, a world we may not yet be mature enough to save. (2006; 324 pages)
Rifling Paradise is on my "Best Historical Novels I Read in 2009" list.
More about Rifling Paradise from Powell's Books
Other historical novels about environmental destruction:
The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie (1947), about trappers and traders in the old American West. More info
Gathering the Water by Robert Edric (2006), about a man who oversees the flooding of a valley in northern England for a dam in 1847. More info
The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney (2007), a murder mystery set in backwoods Canada in 1867 amid conflict between small trappers and large fur companies. More info
Nonfiction about nineteenth century bird collectors:
The Ruling Passion of John Gould by Isabella Tree (1991; also titled The Bird Man), about a nineteenth century ornithologist who studied birds in Australia and elsewhere. More info
An Introduction to the Birds of Australia by John Gould (1848). More info
John James Audubon: The Making of an American by Richard Rhodes (2004), a biography of the nineteenth century naturalist John James Audubon. More info
Birds of America by John James Audubon (1827-1838), paintings of American birds by John James Audubon. More info
Digitized images of John Gould's
Birds of Australia
Birds Australia website
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