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‘The Bird Skinner’: Beauty to be found in even the unhappiest lives

Alice Greenway’s quietly devastating portrait of a man ravaged by loss and guilt in The Bird Skinner would be unbearably sad if it weren’t also so sensitively written and gently understanding of human frailty. As she did in White Ghost Girls, her first novel, Greenway locates a bleak personal odyssey amid serene natural beauty, which offers her tortured protagonist glimpses of a world beyond suffering and sorrow.

After one of his legs is amputated in the winter of 1973, ornithologist Jim Kennoway abruptly quits his job at the American Museum of Natural History and retreats to his family’s summer home on Fox Island in Maine. He’s not at all happy to be interrupted in his steady progress toward drinking and smoking himself to death by the arrival of Cadillac, a young woman from the Solomon Islands who is en route to medical school at Yale. Her father, Tosca, served with Jim as a scout on Layla Island, preparing for the U.S. invasion in the summer of 1943. It’s not a time that Jim wants to recall: “The last thing he needs is the past and its ghosts rising up, unbidden.”

But rise up they do, painful memories of Jim’s mean, judgmental grandfather and of his sojourn on Layla, which nearly culminated in a court-martial. Jim can live with what he did during the war, but he can’t forgive himself for how his decision to enlist affected his wife, abandoned at home in an emotionally shaky state, just as she had been so many times before while he went bird-collecting overseas.

Over the course of this summer, we see how anger and regret have immobilized Jim as he resists Cadillac’s efforts to connect with him. Instead, he focuses obsessively on identifying the real-life location of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a quest that seems to have more to do with his identification with one-legged Long John Silver than any real geographic interest.

The dark atmosphere is slightly brightened by the friendship that grows between Cadillac and Jim’s son, Fergus. Jim has previously held Fergus at arm’s length, slightly disdaining the young man’s mild manner. It’s a lovely moment when Jim is suddenly struck by “the boy’s kindness and beauty . . . qualities he’s not only overlooked but has never seen.” If only such a moment could bring Jim peace and hope for the future.

The novel stays true to its main character’s damaged nature in a grim denouement, yet it is leavened by a final, mystical vision that reconciles Jim with his past. This can’t atone for the havoc he has wrought on others and himself, but Greenway’s rapturous prose and warm empathy assert that there is beauty to be found in even the unhappiest lives.

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