THE BIRD SKINNER by Alice Greenway

Book Quote:

“They talked about it afterward, at the end of summer, after the summer folks had left and there was room to breathe again on the island. They talked slowly, hesitantly, in that drawn-out way you hear less and less down east, with long pauses between short utterances, as if, in the end, most things were best left unsaid.

Down at the boatyard where young Floyd was attending to some hitch in the electrics, resuscitating a bilge pump, adjusting a prop shaft that was shaking the engine something awful; down at the town dock where they tied up at the end of a long day, after hosing down their boats, shedding foul-weather jackets, high boots, oilskin overalls, rubber gloves, like lobsters shedding their skins; down at Elliot’s Paralyzo too—the only watering hole on the island—they sipped the froth off their beers and talked of Jim.

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (JAN 31, 2014)

For any reader who revels in confident, lyrical prose – rich in detail with meticulously chosen words – Alice Greenway’s book will enchant.

The storyline focuses on the elderly and irascible ornithologist Jim Kennoway, who, at the end of his career, retreats to a Maine island after his leg is amputated. There, tortured by past memories and fortified by alcohol and solitude, he eschews the company of others. Yet early on, he receives an unwanted visitor: Cadillac, the daughter of Tosca, who teamed with him as a scout to spy on the Japanese army in the Solomon Islands.

In one sense, the theme is how we evolve and own our memories. In the past, Jim examined how the tongues of different bird species evolved to adapt to different flowers of particular islands. Now he finds himself evolving to circumstances beyond his control: the lack of mobility, the inevitable encroachment of memories and of significant others.

As the book travels back and forth in time – to his youth in the early 1900s, to his stint in Naval Intelligence in the Solomon Islands, to his respected career collecting for the Museum of Natural History, the one constant in his life has always been birding. “Birding, he realizes, offered him both a way to engage with the world and a means to escape it.” Indeed, skinning birds reduces them to their very essence.

So it’s no surprise that even as the book opens, Jim has taken upon himself a quixotic task: to evaluate whether Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island was really one of the Solomon Islands. And herein lies another theme: the dastardly pirate Long John Silver, in Treasure Island, remarks how alike he is with the novel’s young hero, Jim Hawkins. Good and evil can exist simultaneously in nature and in life…or can it? Can both co-exist in Jim himself?

The book blurb implies that Tosca’s daughter Cadillac will play an integral role of capturing “his heart and that of everyone she meets.” I believe that sets up false expectations. Cadillac is indeed a catalyst to help Jim arrive at some clarity but for this reader, the center focus of the story is always Jim. It’s an intelligent and beautifully written book.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 9 readers
PUBLISHER: Atlantic Monthly Press (January 7, 2014)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Alice Greenway
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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January 31, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Contemporary, NE & New York

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