Just when she thought nothing could be more frightening than her upcoming thesis defense, Anna Bella Nor realized she was wrong. The possibility of having her defense delayed was far worse. The fact that her no-good, inattentive PhD advisor, Professor Lars Helland, was found dead in his office with his tongue severed is beside the point. She wanted to graduate. She wanted to get back to being a mom.
Anna, like all the characters in S. J. Gazan's Scandinavian murder-mystery Dinosaur Feather, has many layers to her personality. She resists falling into a stereotypically sympathetic role, which makes her simultaneously harder to take and more intriguing. Why is she so angry all the time? Why does she lash out at her friends when they're just trying to help? And why does she feel so jealous of her childhood bestie Troels? Just as she seeks to piece together the mystery of bird evolution in her work as a paleo-ornithologist, she sets out to learn more about her own evolution from child to defensive adult. She wants to identify the origins of things, to find the links between the past and the present. How did she become who she is? Gazan writes, " all living organisms, mice and men, birds and beetles, had evolved from the same starting point differences in their morphology, physiology, and behavior were entirely the result of adaptation and competition." So it is for Anna.
As the story progresses and yet another murder takes place in the department, Detective Søren Marhauge a man with long-kept secrets of his own finds himself knee-deep in the unfamiliar world of science and university politics. Oddball personalities, romantic affairs, scientific feuds, overblown egos, unconscionable business dealings, and very creepy creatures take him out of his element, and he begins to rely more and more on Anna, despite the fact that she's still a suspect. And to complicate things further, he's starting to fall for her.
I especially enjoyed how Gazan detours away from the murder plot and describes the childhoods and histories of many of her characters. We get to flashback and watch them interact with their parents; we're taken along for the ride as they make bad, irreversible decisions, and we understand why they are the way they are as adults. We also see how lies shape people's personalities over time. Being privy to information that other characters don't have that sense of dramatic irony creates an extra layer of suspense that is certainly gripping.
The various descriptions and settings work well alongside the plot too; dark streets are lightly dusted with snow, feet shuffle down deserted museum halls, cups of tea steam in the cold air. It's a perfect book to get you in the mood for a dark winter. And a warning for some, a promise for others it's filled with revolting descriptions of creatures from biology's underbelly. Parasitic tapeworms that munch their way through nerves and tissue and lay eggs inside people's intestines, spiders the size of dinner plates, scorpions crawling under bedspreads it's all in there.
My only real criticism of The Dinosaur Feather is that, while all the different threads are interesting, they aren't strung together tightly enough. The book tries to do too much, and the punch lines end up falling flat. Consequently, the ending is unsatisfying, if not a little preachy.
Overall, I recommend this book to biology buffs, to those who revel in a dark winter's night, to those who enjoy strong character development, and to those who prefer the ride to the destination. You're in for a treat.
This review was originally published in November 2013, and has been updated for the November 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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