THE BIRD SKINNER by Alice Greenway


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A visit from a wartime companion’s daughter stirs up unwelcome memories for an embittered ornithologist in this follow-up to Greenway’s Los Angeles Times Book Award–winning debut White Ghost Girls (2006).

Ignoring his doctor’s warnings to quit drinking and smoking, Jim Carroway winds up having a leg amputated in the winter of 1973. No longer able to get around Manhattan independently, he abruptly abandons his work at the American Museum of Natural History and retreats to his childhood summer home on Fox Island in Maine. Jim seems likely to drink himself to death there, perhaps as penance for the unspecified disaster that claimed his wife, Helen, many years earlier, perhaps to finally extinguish the bleak knowledge that “[h]e’d been stuck since the war.” He’s not thrilled to be distracted by the arrival of Cadillac, whose father, Tosca, worked with Jim as a scout in the Solomon Islands, preparing for the U.S. invasion in the summer of 1943. Cadillac is headed to medical school at Yale, and it gives Jim some pleasure to know that the bird-skinning skills imparted to Tosca long ago played a role in lifting his family from poverty and getting his daughter educated. But bleak memories—of Jim’s mean, judgmental grandfather; of his beloved, ultimately doomed Helen; of his grim experiences on Layla Island—make it clear how damaged Jim is. The foreboding mood is somewhat alleviated by the tender friendship that grows between Cadillac and Jim’s son Fergus, but frequent references to Hemingway and to Treasure Island (a book with which Jim is obsessed) do not bode well. Readers who don’t mind the novel’s leisurely pace and brooding tone will appreciate Greenway’s limpid, poetic prose; her richly nuanced portraits of a nicely varied cast of characters on both Fox and Manhattan islands; and her evocative depiction of natural landscapes and the birds whose study gave Jim the only peace he has known.

Sensitive and finely written.

Pub Date: Jan. 2nd, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2104-2
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2013


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