Review of “The Bird Skinner” by Alice Greenway

Note: This is a joint review by both Jill and Jim.

This book is good in an artsy sort of way. The author obviously has literary prowess, with somewhat stylized writing. The action jumps back and forth between Penobscot Bay in Maine in 1973 and the Solomon Islands during World War II, with an occasional interlude in 1917.

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Jim Carroway, the title character, is a curmudgeonly seventy-year-old man who is determined to spend what is left of his life drinking, smoking, and cursing the recent loss of one leg. In the past he was an eminent scholar, Assistant Curator of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, a noted taxidermist of birds, and a somewhat heroic veteran of World War II.

His life was greatly and adversely affected by his experiences in the Pacific War as a coast watcher or forward observer of naval movements from an (almost) uninhabited atoll in the Solomon Islands. There he met a man-Friday like character named Tosca. In his spare time, when he was not observing Japanese ship movements, Jim killed or captured birds and taught Tosca the art of skinning and mounting them.

Jim tries to convince himself he is happy in Maine, in spite of defining “happiness” as being able to be drunk all day, and in spite of his dependency on a wheelchair or crutch, a circumstance which chafes greatly at this formerly active man. But then he receives notice that he is getting a visit from Tosca’s daughter, 22-year-old Cadillac, who will be starting medical school at Yale in the fall. Cadillac is Melanesian, tall, lithe, beautiful, self-sufficient, and fairly impervious to Jim’s rude and brusque treatment. She is, she allows, well acquainted with the ways of alcoholics.

But Cadillac’s arrival stirs up a host of memories in Jim that are more than unsettling. Cadillac is unaware of why Jim is so hostile to her, as is Jim’s son Fergus, who is possibly falling for Cadillac. In this passage, when Jim is remembering the D-Day campaign, he reveals his problem with “the goddamn girl”:

He saw the casualties at the end of the campaign. The physical and mental carnage. Men missing legs or arms, or both. Men with their faces bandaged. And other men, uninjured, who dragged themselves along slumped over, mumbling, staring out with vacant eyes. Jesus Christ, as if they were dead already.

He remembers why he hadn’t wanted the girl to come. The last thing he needs is the past and its ghosts rising up, unbidden. It’s hard enough coping with the goddamn present.”

And the ghosts do rise up, although in truth, they have never been far below the surface. Jim suffers from extreme Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The question is raised of how and whether it can ever be cured, or if there even is a cure. Perhaps, as Jim believes, it is just “a reasonable enough response to the things men saw.”

Discussion: Jim is a man suffering from the trauma of war, but he can’t bear to discuss it in order for it to get fixed, if it even can get fixed. Survivors of any severe and horrific events have a similar problem: maybe there is relief to be had, or justice to be done by exacting punishment or revenge on the perpetrators of barbaric acts, but to bear witness requires that one relive the trauma. And how many can willingly subject themselves to that? This is an interesting and tragic dilemma that affects Jim and those who love, or try to love him, in spite of the walls he has built up all around himself.

[My] Jim and I both read this book, and I liked it more than Jim; I felt more sympathy for the main character, and I was impressed with the way the author painted the setting in such colorful detail. Jim observed that the author seemed to favor the female characters over the males; the men, while believable, are all essentially flawed. The female characters, however, are all very competent, capable, and attractive; their only weakness seems to be a propensity to be attracted to the flawed males. [So many responses Jill could make to that….]

Evaluations:

Jill: I thought this was an excellent portrayal of the way in which war continues to shatter combatants long after the battles are over. I admired much of the writing. I wouldn’t call this an “upbeat” book, but I think it tells an important story. I especially liked the thread having to do with fathers and sons, and how much they effect each other even when they hardly know one another.

Rating: 3.5/5

Jim: Despite the author’s efforts to create sympathy for Jim through flashbacks, she doesn’t make him attractive enough in 1973 (the novel’s “present”) to make me care about him very much. The book is literate, but didn’t hold my interest as much as it did Jill’s.

Rating: 2.5/5

Consensus Rating: 3/5

Note: We had sufficient conversation between us over this book to suggest to us that it would be a good choice for book clubs.

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014

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7 Responses

  1. I love this review but I’m not sure about the book.

  2. I would echo Kathy’s comment…this really is an excellent review. But I’m not completely sure I’d warn up to this guy. Who knows. I warm up to strange folks in my books. I do think it addresses an important topic though. A good friend of ours was a Vietnam Vet and that guy suffers to this day. He can’t talk about any of it, either.

  3. Doesn’t not sound like a book I want to read, Just too tough.

  4. I kid of skimmed your reviews, looking for the overall rating (s) as I plan to read this in the next 2 weeks. Wish you guys liked it more:(

  5. Having just read a book about PTSD I don’t think I’m ready for another, though there are elements (Maine, zoology) that interest me.

  6. I’m not sure about the book either. Sounds like it had a lot of promise and the writing is pretty lyrical. I think I’ll keep it on the fence for now.

  7. I have this book and am looking forward to reading it. I love that you both read it and had a lengthy discussion!

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