The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway
1st Jul 2014
The Bird Skinner is Alice Greenway’s second novel, telling the story of Jim – lonely, ageing and obsessed with birds. Greenway won the Los Angeles Times award for First Fiction in 2006 and this next offering, nearly ten years later, shows how much her voice has developed.
Jim has retired to an island boathouse off the coast of Maine, leaving behind his family and position at New York’s Natural History Museum.
His calm isolation is shattered as the book begins, through the arrival of a young woman, Cadillac Baketi, from the Solomon Islands. Cadillac’s father was an island scout who Jim knew during the Second World War, when they spied on the Japanese and collected – skinned – birds in the meantime.
Now, Cadillac invades Jim’s space in the most non-threatening way possible: drawing the old collector’s items, enjoying the space and the freedom, reminding him of what can be found in objects and everyday scenes which have long since lost their significance.
It's an unusual and deeply moving love story, flitting between Jim's growing interest in the woman who so thoroughly spoiled his hermitism, and the spectre of his wife.It’s an unusual and deeply moving love story, flitting between Jim’s growing interest in the woman who so thoroughly spoiled his hermitism, and the spectre of his wife.
Cadillac “looks up to the sea, laughs and swings her arms. A girlish joy that reminds Jim suddenly of Helen.” His character is well-drawn, oscillating between his old fascinated self and the drinking, grunting man he has become.
The books also thrums with passion for the area surrounding the Penobscot Bay, the boats that hum through it and the stillness of its islands. “Now he hears something else – a splashing of flippers in the sea. A forced breath of air through a snorkel that makes him think of the hushed exhalation of a whale. Jesus Christ, the girl’s swimming!”
The Bird Skinner is a well-researched story, and setting plays as large a part as Jim or Cadillac, evoking the lost youth Jim begins to relive, and the associations with nature discovered over the years.
It’s a slow-moving novel but no less powerful for that; deeply reflective and proving that even the saddest, most isolated lives can find some redemption.