Tom Janeway, the protagonist of Jonathan Raban's second novel, is a middle-aged novelist who emigrated from London to Seattle in the early 1990s. In this respect, he is like his creator, who moved between the same two cities in 1990. Raban appears to have something else in common with his main character - bad luck when it comes to keeping wives. Towards the end of his previous book, Passage to Juneau (2000), Raban revealed that his wife had recently left him. Waxwings is, among other things, an account of the break-up of Tom's marriage to his wife of eight years, Beth.
At the outset, Tom has an enjoyable job teaching creative writing at the University of Washington and a regular Thought for the Day-type slot on National Public Radio. He and Beth have a four-year- old son, Finn, with whom they live in a roomy, if slightly ramshackle house overlooking the Sound. Having never felt particularly comfortable in England (like Raban), the ease of Tom's "new" American life consistently amazes him. He sees it as something that "had happened to him rather as a child's Christmas might fall suddenly, unheralded, out of season".
His contentment, however, is unwarranted. Tom's bookish self-absorption has become increasingly irritating to Beth. Where once she thought him "brilliant", she now sees him - with some justification - as hopelessly out of touch. Formerly a journalist, Beth now works for a successful internet company (the novel is set in late 1999 and early 2000, shortly before the stock market crashed) and, like most of her fellow start-up workers, she is a paper millionaire. Her emotional retreat - and financial independence - from her husband are confirmed when she moves into an ultra-modern condominium in a fashionable part of town.
Beth's departure causes Tom to retreat into the past. In a long central section, he recalls growing up with his Hungarian-born parents in Essex. With uncharacteristic perceptiveness, he realises that his American life is not really so dissimilar to that of his parents; the habits of exile die hard. The novel's title recalls the reckless ambition of Icarus (and therefore the greed that led to the imminent crash); wax-wings are also a type of North American migratory bird. One of Raban's points is that human beings have more in common with these creatures than many of them - including Tom - would care to admit.
This idea is underlined by a separate storyline involving Chick, a Chinese immigrant who sneaks into the United States on a container ship. With remarkable ingenuity, Raban imagines America as it must appear to this latter-day greenhorn. As he glides invisibly through the city, Chick is astonished by what he sees: "What things Americans abandoned! Rusting machinery, old boats, and cars that would need only a little fixing to make them run." Yet he is nothing if not adaptable. He acquires a baseball cap, finds work as a builder, and soon - like Beth - is dabbling in stocks and shares. As Chick becomes increasingly assimilated, Tom comes to resemble the "alien" that the other man formerly was.
Waxwings is by no means a flawless novel. Following Beth's departure, not a great deal happens. Raban's own prejudices are sometimes too much in evidence. From the novel's set-up, it seems likely that he shares some of Tom's snobbish disdain for the business world. And, given her shallow capitulation to the lure of e-commerce, it seems unlikely that Beth would have regarded Tom as "brilliant".
But for the most part, Raban does an excellent job of stitching his various themes and characters together. Wax-wings conveys the impression of having been meticulously patterned and planned. Raban's stylistic restraint is admirable. His descriptions, unusually, draw attention to what they are describing rather than their author's linguistic abilities. Early on, when Tom comes across Finn sleeping, he contrasts his son's "posture of reckless surrender" with the "defensive foetal crouch" that both he and Beth adopt. The accuracy of this observation, and the way it foreshadows the rupture of their married life, are typical of this author, who clearly pays a great deal of attention to the mechanics of writing. Waxwings deserved its place on the Booker long list - and was unlucky, perhaps, not to be shortlisted.
William Skidelsky is the NS deputy books and arts editor