Bird collecting—from identification to skinning to taxidermy—doesn’t exactly seem like the stuff from which compelling fiction is made. Yet in the deft hands of Alice Greenway, a man’s devastating choices are rendered with the lyrical skill befitting the granddaughter of a naturalist, in The Bird Skinners, Greenway’s second novel.
Bouncing between 1942 and 1974, between Solomon Island jungles and Maine coastline, the novel’s short chapters are full of fluent, telling details. Jim is an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and an introverted alcoholic vet who has kept both the world and his son at arm’s length since World War II. But when Cadillac—the daughter of a Solomon Islands’ compatriot—arrives on his Maine doorstep, Jim must acknowledge the sacrifices demanded by war. Not just life and limb, but also dignity, innocence and loved ones; Jim hasn’t just been collecting birds, but regrets as well. By the novel’s shocking end, he recognizes that past transgressions—as tangled as vines in the Solomon Islands—can bind people together, even as they might tear apart or isolate.
“On the one hand, you have a man who grew up in huge privilege and ends up struggling with his anger and regret,” Greenway says of Jim. “On the other, you have a young woman who owns practically nothing, but who is full of joy and determined, despite the odds against her, to study medicine,” she says. Like birds, the characters are crossing trajectories, or migrations, she says.
Greenway is familiar with the traveling life. She grew up in Hong Kong and Bangkok, the daughter of a Vietnam war-era AP correspondent, and now lives in Scotland, with occasional forays to the U.S. Jim is based on Greenway’s own grandfather, who also once worked at the American Museum of Natural History. “He was grumpy, but incredibly charming,” she says of her grandfather. “He would rattle things off in French or recite poetry. I was intrigued by him.” Her central motive in writing the book was to explore a character—a fiction drawn on real life—of an irascible elderly man who drinks too much, smokes too much and sometimes both at once. “My question was why someone would be like that at the end of life, especially with such a fascinating life. I started with the character.”
Greenway’s research on birds, World War II history and traditional headhunting rituals became almost as fascinating as the writing, she says. “I became obsessive about getting things right,” she says. Some details provisioned themselves, though. Via a chance encounter, she was able to communicate with a man who had worked as a Solomon Island district medical officer in the 1960s and 70s. “He gave me the equivalent of a college course on the Solomon Islands,” she says, and corrected assumptions she’d made. She took on the subject of ornithology, although it didn’t come naturally. “To identify birds by their flight patterns or calls, I think you have to do it as a kid,” she says. “It’s like a language, and you have to do it the way Jim did it,” by first-hand experience as a child, rambling through wild areas. “I was interested in the idea of why people become naturalists, how that starts. I always wish I’d been one,” she says.
The novel not only depicts the urge to collect but also what happens when “those who hunt and collect birds find themselves in a war situation, hunting and tracking men,” she says. The contrasts between past and present, connection and isolation seem insurmountable at first, but toward the novel’s end, the newly vulnerable Jim strikes a poignant balance between collection and release, the negotiation between the urge to preserve and the freedom inherent in letting go. “I was interested in what it feels like toward the end of life if you don’t feel you’ve done things right,” Greenway says. “Because of the transitory nature of life, it’s important to at least feel you got enough right.”
Did the novel’s twists at the end surprise her as much as they might readers? “When I started, I knew how Jim’s story might end, though I was also open to the possibility that his character might go in a completely different direction,” she says. “I didn’t plot it all beforehand but I often laid out pages on the floor to see what order they should go in. The very end, Cadillac’s epilogue, did surprise me,” she says, and wisely adds, “I don’t want to say anything that gives away the ending.”
During our conversation, the muezzin’s call to prayer almost drowns out Greenway’s reedlike voice; she’s ensconced in an old-fashioned Istanbul neighborhood, enjoying a well-deserved respite. “I spent so long at my desk writing my book, I wanted to go somewhere and soak in real life for a bit,” she says, and describes, in her typically observant style, men playing backgammon and drinking tea and the Greek graveyard at the corner.
“It’s magical,” Greenway says of Turkey. “It’s very vibrant, almost too much stimulation for a writer who’s been tucked away for a long time.”