Friday, January 24, 2014


The Bird Skinner, Alice Greenway, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014, 306 pp

I might never have heard of Alice Greenway if it weren't for my practice of being in multiple reading groups. The leader of one of those groups brought Ms Greenway in to do a reading from her first book, White Ghost Girls, in 2006. I immediately bought and read the book and had that wonderful feeling I get when I find a new author to love.

I've had to wait eight years for the second novel, probably worth the wait, because there is not a shred of sophomore slump in The Bird Skinner. While the first novel was essentially about teenage sisters, this one is about an old broken curmudgeon at the end of his life.

Alice Greenway is a tragedian of the first order. She sees into the minutely individual ways a human being can suffer. It takes an old soul to understand that to live is to suffer, a Buddhist concept, as well as to comprehend that a person may come to terms with loss and with his own shortcomings but not necessarily recover from them.

Jim Carroway has suffered great losses in every decade of his life while also following his consuming passion for ornithology whenever his life permitted, even at times when he should have been taking more care with that life. His most recent loss is the leg that has been amputated, for what reason we never learn. He retreats to the family house on an island off the coast of Maine where he spent summers as a child, determined to drink and smoke himself to death.

Sounds awful, I know. And it is. The novel is a study of a man whose life-changing incidents all left him with post-traumatic stress; serial PTSD. If he hadn't been the tough and nasty character he became, he would never have survived for as long as he did.

When it came to studying birds, he was fearless, ultra competent, and driven. A Darwin. An Edward O Wilson. When it came to human interaction he was found lacking. 

Because the novel follows the form of a person looking back over his life, the whole story comes to light in the patchy, uneven way that memory works. Every scene of suffering is leavened with exquisite writing about the natural world as well as the moments of grace Jim finds. The reader is made to care about this most graceless of men and to hope for his recovery.

The wonder is that even as various fine people come to Jim on his island and help him in various ways, even as he seems to find his soul again, even as we are seduced into hope, the author keeps from us what will come about in the end, though she has Jim telling us all along where he is headed.

I have a little pile of books called "How did she/he do it?" Books I will reread or have reread to discover the answer. This one goes on that pile.

(The Bird Skinner is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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