Gwendolen Gross Field Guide: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780805064926

Field Guide: A Novel

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9780805064926: Field Guide: A Novel

In this mesmerizing first novel a young American graduate student abandons her research deep in the Australian rain forest to investigate her professor's mysterious disappearance.

Annabel Mendelssohn has an unusual but oddly satisfying life -- studying spectacled fruit bats in the rain forest of Australia. She spends her free time discovering waterfalls and e-mailing her sister, Alice, who has settled for the more domesticated science of grant administration. Although she has an unfriendly roommate and occasionally fears that loggers will disturb her bats, all seems to be going according to plan, until Annabel's mentor, the enigmatic Professor John Goode, suddenly disappears.

Haunted by the ambiguous circumstances surrounding her brother's death two years earlier, Annabel becomes obsessed with finding the professor. Meanwhile, after learning of his father's disappearance, Leon Goode leaves his teaching job in a Boston museum to join the search. In the vibrant, unpredictable rain forest, Annabel and Leon come to realize that truth reveals itself in more ways than one.

As it unmasks the secrets of the rain forest and of tangled human emotions, this deftly written and suspenseful tale casts a spell over mind and heart.

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About the Author:

Gwolen Gross was selected for the PEN West Emerging Writers Program and completed an M.F.A. in Poetry and Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. She spent a semester in Australia researching spectacled fruit bats. Field Guide is her first novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Field Guide
Part I One You could fly into Townsville, the small university town on the northeast edge of the island-continent, but Annabel took the student's cheap route; there'd been two buses, five airplanes, and a van ride. She grew numb to discomfort after the traveling-hour tally reached the twenties. She'd left on an icy January morning in Chicago and emerged, dry-mouthed and sticky with the sour stench of airplane air, into a balmy Australian summer night. When she arrived at her dorm, she flopped onto her futon and fell asleep. Someone was yelling, a few hours later, wake wake wake, the accent Australian. Annabel, still dressed, wandered into the hall, where a half-dozen others were stumbling toward the door. They were herded to a van for a ride to the lake and the dawn chorus. There was a picnic under a shelter, strange hard biscuits, the sky still dark. Then they sat by the lake with a professor, Professor Goode, who had a wide pinkish face and one dazzling blue eye, the other brown. He whispered the names of birds, common first, then Latin, as they started in occasional bursts, then began toflood the pan of the lake and the forest with squawking, hooting, whistling. The professor's voice was warm, quiet, and distinctly Aussie. At first the calls were spare--a rustle, a short honk. The laugh of the kookaburra, like the chimp from the old Tarzan movies. Then a flock of parrots crossed the lake, raucous and flat, screaming their echoes across the water and flying in dark yellow-and-blue bands over the tops of the eucalyptuses. "Pale-headed Rosella," whispered the professor. " Platycercus ad--" A frog made a rippling bellow before he could finish the Latin, and Professor Goode smiled. "Frog," he whispered. Annabel laughed quietly at his puckish expression. Soon the sounds were a flood, and his commentary was hard to hear, too many birds to follow. It filled Annabel with pleasure, the quiet canvas and the strange colors of the sounds, the not knowing everything. At home she'd identify them: black-capped chickadee, cardinal, tufted titmouse. The birds here had the wild names she'd been reading in the guidebooks, and the wild sounds to go with them. She made a grid in her notebook and ticked off a tally of birdcalls in five-minute segments: 4:55, two kookaburras, a rainbow lorikeet, three sulfur-crested cockatoos. The tick marks quickly clustered as she tried to keep up. The sounds subsided into background as the separate rays of sunlight blended into a room full of light. Annabel could see the professor's face now, intent, as he let a handful of soil from the bank slip though his fingers. He'd said the birds' names as if they were friends. There was somethingAnnabel recognized in him, in the way he listened, attention absolute. Maybe it was that he wanted everyone else to know, to hear the details of the dawn chorus's complicated music. He knew it well, but still he listened with amazement in his expression, the two-colored eyes focusing on the feathered sources or toward hidden perches. She liked it when he looked at her; his wonder shot through her. Her own eyes were tender and tired. She'd counted the calls of fifteen species of birds; she'd seen the dull dormant form of an orchid--a ball of deadlooking roots--and a startled, hissing, blue-tongued skink. Coming back around the lake, Annabel walked into a web and rattled a spider as big as a dinner plate, who made for her face. The front legs brushed her cheek before she backed up and slammed into the man behind her. It all had a groggy, dreamlike feeling. Annabel wanted to shake it off, the thickness, but even the rain-forest air was dense in her lungs. Jet lag, she reminded herself, doesn't rub off. It has to fade.  
When they came back to James Cook, there was another meal, outside at picnic benches with the rest of the graduate students, whom Annabel thought she ought to be meeting, but she felt too slow to say much. Her roommate, Sabrina, introduced herself to the men, her voice low. She was wearing a V-neck tank top, and smelled of some syrupy eau de toilette, instead of forest and sweat and lack of sleep. "Hey, roommate," Annabel said. Sabrina grimaced cutely and pretended not to hear. Fine, Annabel thought, I don't like you either. Annabel was shrinking. An apple in a very hot oven, wrinkling. Pungent. She sat down next to the man she'd stumbled against that morning, Markos. Even sitting, he was tall, and his skin was the almost-translucent freckled variety peculiar to some redheads. Annabel looked at the freckles on his chin, wanting to connect the dots with a pen. "What's your field?" she asked. "Animal, vegetable, or mineral?" "Mmm," said Markos. "Oh, uh, vegetable." He waved a carrot stick at her, then took a bite. "Epiphytes. You?" God, am I boring, thought Annabel. "Bats," she said. Bats aren't boring, though--bats get a bad rap, but they fly and cross-pollinate. Annabel looked at the pier, with its two barnacle-crusted fishing boats, the program's small research ship beside them. The other pier was where the ferries for Magnetic Island docked, and the yacht that shuttled tourists around the bay. Soon I'm out of here, she thought, soon to my bats. "Sorry," he said. "It's because of all the travel, or whatever, but what's your name again?" Boring and forgettable, she thought. "Um, uh, Annabel." "You almost forgot?" "Oh, jet lag." "Oh. Markos." He ate the rest of the carrot. "Truly groggy. Going back to dorms. Speaking in staccato." He laughed at his own joke. He's more entertaining to himself than I am, thought Annabel. "I'll walk with you." Clearly, she thought, this isn't going to be a social coup, but at least I won't be distracted when the work starts. Soon, she thought, hearing the word with each step, soon.They walked back along the path, not uncompanionably, Annabel hoped, but quiet in their own capsules of sleepiness and thought. Parrots were fighting over fruit at the base of a mango tree; there were the smells of warm fruit, rot, and sea. The sun was flat and hard; even the late afternoon sun was potent, but good against her tired skin. At the dorm house, there was a line for the showers. When she was finally under the spray, Annabel soaped and washed, scrubbing the travel grime. Then she settled in on her futon, trying to sleep as the sun waned against the window shades. All she could picture were the crabby, jetlagged faces of the other students, their tired expressions and pale skin like hers. She tried to conjure the layers of the rain forest, from floor to canopy. She started with the thin soil at the bottom, imagined the vines reaching up into the lower trees, the sharp palm fronds starting at her height, cutting light into triangles, then higher, where the orchids' dazzle of purple and orange split the browns and greens. She looked up behind closed eyes to see more epiphytes filling in the rare spaces where the sun wove its fingers through the tops of the trees. And bats; in her version, there were bats camped on the branches. She hadn't seen them yet, but she knew they'd be there.  
The next afternoon, she sat on a chair with a split cushion and a single rolling wheel, typing an E-mail message to her sister in Connecticut. The other side of the world. The Australian university had arranged the computer trailer for the graduate field-science program--she was short for the setup; her feet didn't quite reach the floor. The trailer smelled of mold and eucalyptus, and already it seemedfamiliar: the odor, the metal-framed window stuck open a few inches, the burst of green and yellow light from outside, the sound of her own breathing and key-clicking. She could imagine working on a final draft of her research project here, knowing something about her bats that no one else knew--some profile of relevance about their daytime activities assembled from thousands of observations--pointillistic dots that looked like nothing up close, but became a picture if you stepped away. She had faith in that discovery, a sense of pleasant possibility, belief that her efforts would be meaningful. Now Alice, Annabel thought, might not always have faith. Her sister was always steady in action--her sturdy strides down the aisle at her wedding, her march forward in marriage, the regular relationship with their parents, her job--but Annabel thought maybe faith ran through Alice in uneven veins. Annabel had her own doubts sometimes, looking up close at too many dots. What could she honestly have to say, one human, watching bats?  
Sender: (Annabel Mendelssohn) AMendelss@ausnet.jcooku.tvl.edu To: AEMendel@biosci.com Subject: Hello! Hello! Wednesday, January 17, 1996  
Alice, my dear, hello from Oz. Do you know if Mom is on-line yet? Are you still calling her every week?  
Arrived, got the James Cook University standard visitors' housing--it's a real house, but incrediblycramped, or might I say COZY. Got a roommate who appears to be a monster of vanity, but I should give her a chance anyway, right? I'm sure you would. But she's already stacked up hair sprays and toxic-waste face paint and removers and curlers and thong underwear and a whole sequined pile of nightclothes in her corner, and it's spreading. Environmental Ethics and Soil Science 201 are really chichi classes, I plan to wear my stilettos. Two dozen grad students, and I get her. Okay, maybe I'm crabby from jet lag. You know I'm not a TOTAL snob.  
Other than the roommate, I've met a few decent people in the program. One guy, Markos, went to West High around the same time Kevin did ... I don't remember his last name, though. Did I tell you they had us out on a field trip already? We recorded dawn chorus in some tiny strip of rain forest. Saw a bandicoot, rainbow lorikeets, roseolas--weird marsupial, amazing parrots, but it's hard to fully appreciate anything on only two hours of sleep. So, more later. Let me know if you get this.  
Love, Annabel  
p.s. Is it snowing? I'm on my second summer!! (Don't be too jealous.)  
 
Annabel pushed her disorderly reddish hair behind her ears. She wasn't sure she should've said all that about theroommate, but she had to confide in someone, she had to talk with Alice somehow, and E-mail was free. She had friends who would write from Chicago, and she had a phone card she ought not to use because of the expense. Alice was essential, though, Alice was her anchor, sometimes irritating, sometimes soothing, but always there. No one else could understand her history without a sense of sympathy--at this point she didn't want sympathy. Sometimes all she wanted was to talk, or write, about the present, even though Robert intruded into her daily life as if his timeline hadn't ended. She imagined him looking at her roommate, a quick look of lust followed by disgust. Robert's face had revealed him the way sky revealed weather. And he changed as quickly, too--you could watch the overcast of his displeasures dissipate in seconds for the clarity of purpose. Robert would have loved it here, Annabel thought, the flat blue of the water, the parrot cacophony. But he'd have been impatient for the work to start. She was here for the bats, but first she had to wait out the formalities of class work and proposals, hurdles to keep her from starting the real search, field data, breaking down behaviors into numbers and percentages, then reconstituting the data to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts. The clean satisfaction of observations kneaded into truths. She'd left her Chicago lab job, impatient for what her brother had called the real work: the field, putting her hands on life. She'd had a taste of it, but she was impatient, waiting for the meal of her own research. Jet lag made everything overstimulating and slow--the too bright light, sharp smells. The lake they went to, inthat rain-forest patch, haunted her. The other students had talked about hitching a ride back to go swimming, but she looked at it and saw floating hands, bloated faces. Alice had warned her that you couldn't just leave your history.  
 
Alice had missed work for two days. The flu clogged up her eyes, nose, chest, and perception. Everything looked slightly blurred at the edges, smudged by a careless finger. Her body felt like an oversaturated sponge, leaky, swollen. Sometimes Alice thought her size was perfect: against Kevin in bed, she was water to the cup of him. She was voluptuous and foreign to herself--the curve of her own ankle, her shoulder small under his arm when they were touching each other, wrapped. Sometimes she liked her shiny brown hair, cut short and neat. Her eyes almost the same deep shade. But today her hair was strings, she was puffy, swelled with her own discomforts. She was the wrong size for the couch, the robe she wore; she smelled of the overused, overwarm bed, and her hair tangled with the bad air of the flu. Her sister, Annabel, was in the Southern Hemisphere, doing real science, and it was summer for her. Sometimes it seemed like Annabel's energy surrounded her like perpetual summer. Outside Alice's small Tudor house, her cave, it was January in suburban Connecticut--the trees were stripped and their gray arms matched the sky. Alice parted the insulated curtains to peek at her empty street. Even the cars looked desolate. If only it would snow, paint everything bright white to reflect the feeble light and wake the landscape ofparked Volvos and Fords crusted in road salt, gray sidewalks and lawns, colonials and capes sitting squat on their modest lots. A gray bird landed on the nude dogwood in her front yard and didn't sing. Alice let the curtain settle shut. She coughed, lay on the couch, and turned the TV on and off, hoping each time to find something distracting. She hated being out of work; she felt guilty, as if she were playing hooky. But she was genuinely sick, and her phone rang a lot, with questions from the office, her boss, with disgruntled where did you puts and what did you do abouts. Alice gritted her teeth. He was annoyingly kind, and annoyingly helpless without her. She heard her own voice whine like a leaking accordion--she told her boss where, what, that she was feeling a bit better, that she'd be back soon. If she thought too hard, everything started to hurt, colors, sound. There was a familiar pale taste of metal in her mouth. What was she doing now, one of her family's survivors--handmaiden's work, grants administration, instead of real science, like Robert. She could have taken up where he left off, or started her own, like Annabel. But she had Kevin. She had a home, she had a sweet steadiness in her days. Alice coughed and put a lemon drop on her tongue to chase the metal taste. She turned the TV back on to watch the Wheel of Fortune contestants buy vowels so they could guess incorrectly, greedily, at cliches. If only she could leave Connecticut winter for a week--the sameness of the sky, rushing in from the aching cold to the inside's artificial light. In the thickest green of sweaty summer, Alice thought she longed for winter, but what she imaginedthen was a white coat on her house, the burnt blue sky, sweet fireplace warmth on her cold face. It wasn't like that in real January--winter was dead leaves still mounded in the gutter and old air from the sealed containers of house, car, work. She loved their house, a three-bedroom Tudor with warm slanting walls and a fat chimney. Over the bridge from her parents in New Jersey, it was close enough for a day trip...

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