Egret Island is a coral reef, twenty-five hectares of tropical vegetation off the coast of Mauritius. In stark progression after the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British, even the egrets vanish from this beleaguered place.
Arrived at Egret Island via an independent foundation, Fran is a trained naturalist charged with a mission: return the island to its pre-human state, replacing “the exotic with the endemic” plant and animal life, restore the natural habitat and maybe even rescue the mourner bird from extinction.
The fiftyish Fran is joined by a younger man, Christian, a Swiss by birth. Deeply scarred by his experiences with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bosnia, Christian is seeking refuge from the harsh reality of war, “a bloody game of bullies and warlords, a slaughter.”
Fran carries her own heartbreak: a love affair with Satish, a younger Tamil immigrant from India who knew the island well, his death still a potent grief. Christian’s arrival has awakened Fran’s feelings, his romance with a local girl a reminder that Satish is gone, as if Fran’s relationship was only an island tale.
Watching Christian in Satish’s place, Fran hopes that their daily routines will offer this man an opportunity to recover, to regain his balance in the world. Drawn closer by the defining experiences of their lives, Fran and Christian share their stories, a source of redemption for them both.
At this point in her life, Fran has crossed an invisible line, accepting solitude as a way of life, made stronger within the boundaries of self. Fran is far removed from island society, safe from any entanglements that expose her vulnerabilities. Writing in her journal, Fran notes that anything can be changed in nature, an act of God, Darwin’s wink: “What will I do now… my ordered little world is only an illusion of order, thwarted by biology.”
Fran is complex, having made peace with her loneliness yet embracing Satish and, later, Christian with natural wisdom and compassion, withholding her own needs so that those of others can be met. Even Christian realizes that this place and this woman are born of the moment, a brief respite before he reenters a brutal world with unfinished obligations to be met, acutely aware of Fran’s strength, her unconditional acceptance of what life offers, even if happiness only comes in small measures.
Anderson evokes a place made tactile by the species clinging to life and the wounded humans reaching to one another for comfort. These characters inhabit the novel, Fran, Christian, Asmita, the devious Razel, the lost Nermina and the ghost of Satish, where passion blooms without interference, but the world waits. Temporary solace belongs to the moment, and old wrongs may be made right, nature tilted gently into balance, as Fran and Christian plant the fragile seeds of the future.