, Research Paper
Stairway to heaven The Snow Geese William Fiennes 256pp, Picador At the age of 25, William Fiennes suffered severe illness in the middle of his postgraduate studies. During a long period of convalescence, he had time to reflect on this trauma, and why it had triggered in him such a deep yearning for the soothing familiarity and reassurance of his parents’ family home in the English Midlands. Fiennes also sought to fill the vacuum created by his enforced leisure with an old neglected interest in ornithology, inspired by his father and readings of a favourite book from childhood, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose . The surprise outcome of this period as an invalid was an intrepid project, as soon as he was fully recovered, to follow real wild snow geese during their migration. The bird in question is not the same as the subject of Gallico’s book, but a closely related form known as the lesser snow goose, which moves in huge flocks each spring from its wintering areas in southern Texas to breeding grounds near Churchill on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay. Running in tandem with this quest was Fiennes’s larger ambition to write a book that was part North American travelogue, part natural-historical study of animal migration – and of geese in particular – and part meditation on the importance of home, and its flipside, our human longing for travel and the unknown. The Snow Geese is a rare travel book, and not only for the outstanding literary promise of its author. More important for the genre is the fact that Fiennes has unearthed a theme perfectly suited to the travel book’s structure. His description of his 4,000-mile journey across the American interior is itself an exploration of the larger questions he poses for himself and for the reader. What is the nature of “home”? Why is it so important, not only to humans but to many other species? Why, when we are denied access to it, do we suffer from a physical illness we define as “homesickness”? Fiennes has found the structural basis for a really great travel work; he has also researched his subjects very thoroughly and writes beautifully. If I express some disappointment that the book is actually less than the sum of these parts, it is not to dismiss his achievement. On the contrary, the deficiencies in The Snow Geese are in many ways a natural consequence of his abilities as a writer. The problem lies in Fiennes’s acute eye for detail and ear for dialogue. During his serendipitous encounters along the snow-goose trail, we often learn the eye colour of his interlocutor, the shape of their ear lobes, the type of formica top in the kitchen of his host, or the make of lampshade on the sideboard. These forensically reconstructed scenes are testament to his powers of recall, or his note-taking, but they read like five-finger exercises in descriptive clarity, rather than adding much to the overall theme. His passion for the everyday minutiae of people and places is in some ways reminiscent of Lawrence Durrell’s writing in travel works such as Reflections on a Marine Venus. What makes that particular book such a wonderful success is the sharp editor’s knife wielded by Durrell’s friend, Anne Ridler, who cut the rambling manuscript severely. Fiennes’s book would also have benefited from such treatment. This would have isolated the best of his travel narrative and more carefully matched it to the underlying philosophical meditation on the notion of home and its irresistible lure for man and goose alike. The result would have been a tighter, more coherently structured and, ultimately, better book. In short, the one skill Fiennes needs still to add to his already substantial repertoire is an ability to judge where his narrative would be improved by what he leaves out. That said, The Snow Geese is the debut of a striking talent. The book is full of beautiful and passionate evocations of winter landscapes and of their wild inhabitants, as well as deft one-liners. Fiennes writes of one old boy that his “glasses had thick lenses in which his eyes floated like puffer fish behind aquarium glass”; attempting to capture the awesome spectacle of one massive flock of snow geese, he suggests simply that it contained more birds “than there are words in this book”. It is in his descriptions of the geese themselves that Fiennes’s imagination is most fully engaged and his powers as a writer completely deployed. I am green with envy at his ability to capture with such seeming ease the inaccessible yet highly expressive sounds created by birds moving in large flocks. However, one also senses that Fiennes’s inclination is towards the human stories he unearthed during the course of his journey, and that his next step will be towards fiction. If that is his plan, then natural-history writing will have suffered a major loss. Mark Cocker is the author of Birders (Jonathan Cape).