a novel by David de Vaux
Tom Pryce-Bowyer returns to his cabin in Queensland’s wet tropics from overseas to write the life of a celebrated American photographer. Expecting only forest animals to disturb his concentration, he tries to deflect the quixotic plans of Jack, a former intelligence officer who wants to thwart the promotion of an unsavory American general. As he researches for his biography, he’s forced to confront secrets about the recent atrocities in East Timor. A more pleasant distraction for Tom is Emjay, a New York publisher, with whom he strikes up a whirlwind affair after his marriage breakdown. To Tom’s dismay, his idyllic rainforest, and the life of his inquisitive neighbor – a colorful southern cassowary of mystical dimensions – become endangered by his very presence and his friends’ activism, even as his late-blooming romance begins to fray.
Photo by Paul IJsendoorn
I arrived home to find that my cabin door had been kicked in by a large bird. This was my neighbor Alfred, who was standing in shattered glass on the doorstep, looking at me in a troubled way with his head on one side, almost eye-to-eye with me. He was in shock. The metal-framed door had two panels of tempered safety glass, the lower panel now having fallen out in small, harmless pieces. This was not a feat that I would care to attempt without hobnail boots, [but] cassowaries have huge feet, with a bayonet-like middle toe that has been known to unzip a man’s torso, although this is not standard behavior. In reality my friend was a gentle giant. His destructive approach to my front door was not what it seemed. As the biggest animal in our forest, he had no need to throw his weight around. He must have seen his reflection in the glass, becoming confused and enraged by the very idea of an interloping male cassowary on his territory, and lashed out with his massive foot before giving it sufficient thought.
There was a noise that Alfred sometimes made which could be matched by nothing smaller than an elephant. On my first experience of this remarkable sound at six a.m. many years ago, I sprang from my bed, at first thinking that someone must be dynamiting in the vicinity. Once properly awake and aware that I was the only human in a large area of rainforest, I ran around inside the cabin, looking out of all the windows until I beheld my magnificent visitor through the kitchen window slats. He was barely a meter beyond the glass, the closest I had ever seen him. As I gazed in amazement, he swung his head down between his legs and delivered a powerful encore. There are few people who have heard the cassowary boom. So deep that it is close to a subsonic wave, the vibration is felt as much as heard. The nearest thing to this that I had ever come across was the sound of the lowest, foot-pedaled notes of a [large church] organ.
David de Vaux’s densely plotted, literary debut novel [is] about all manner of trysts tropiques…a captivating tale of intrigue that combines comedy and romance with a trenchant commentary on imperialist atrocities in Southeast Asia. Cassowary Hill is by turns entertaining and introspective…[and] epic in its scope.
Meenakshi Venkat, New York Journal of Books
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A beautiful, layered story that reminds me of Steinbeck and Hemingway…The scenes in this novel beg for a screenplay. The plot has all the essentials for a movie.
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This remarkable novel tackles the ecology of rainforests hitherto largely neglected in fiction [and] the emotional struggles of its narrator’s pressing personal dilemma. It uncovers intrigue and deception associated with the eventual achievement of independence in Timor Leste in convincing detail. An explosive episode at the end of the novel brings all three [topics] together at once.
Prof Glyn Davies, Griffith University, Queensland
Cassowary Hill takes the reader on a fascinating journey: from betrayal and corruption to heroism and altruism, from frivolous flirtation to tragic high romance, from metropolitan sophistication to Thoreau-like natural simplicity…With this novel, tropical nature is not a place in which to withdraw from civilization, but [one] in which human beings…rebalance the conflicting demands made on their lives by the contemporary globalized world. This is a newly emerging sub-genre of internationalist fiction, and David de Vaux is a fine practitioner of the mode.
Stephen Torre, Phd, Journal of Studies in the Australian Tropics
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…echoes of [Graham] Greene in de Vaux’s descriptive tour of exotic locales and the moral quagmires faced by his expatriate characters.
David de Vaux’s writing underscores the importance of human-animal relationships. A deep sense of place brings Cassowary Hill into the reader’s experience, embodied by an allegorical shadow character in the form of a bird. Bird enthusiasts will likely enjoy the appearances of this odd avian companion, an unforgettable presence that invites us to question the sharp line between human and animal.
Jessica Hardesty Norris, PhD
Former program director, American Bird Conservancy