A golden whistler, a burdened ornithologist

The Bird Skinner by Alice GreenwayWhen I picked up Alice Greenway’s new/second novel The Bird Skinner, I thought I was reading this author for the first time. Turns out, I read her first novel, White Ghost Girls, in 2006, and I didn’t remember that until, researching Greenway’s bibliography, I read a short description of the plot. This kind of literary memory blocking is my first. I may not be able to find a book in my house (including, as of this writing, White Ghost Girls), but I always remember having read the book — until now, when I’ve evidently crossed a line into some kind of literary overload.

How quickly and clearly the plot of White Ghost Girls came back to me, though. It’s a striking, spare and complicated story about two American, teen-aged sisters living in Hong Kong with their distant, lonely mother while their father, a photographer, flies in and out of Vietnam photographing the war. The girls rivalry for their father’s attention when he’s home from his long assignments builds to a shocking and devastating end.

Not just the plot of White Ghost Girls came back to me, however, but the troublesome sense Greenway creates that something tragic will happen. It’s anchored on an incident that takes place in a street market after the girls break loose from their Chinese amah, Ah Bing. Greenway evokes a similar foreboding in The Bird Skinner with ornithologist Jim Kennoway’s World War II memories returning to him. It is 1973, he’s newly retired from Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History and crippled from a leg amputation caused by poor health. Jim arrives at his summer home on an island in Maine to be left alone, drink excessively and forget about his experiences 30 years ago in the Pacific on a remote Solomon Island behind enemy lines.

"White Ghost Girls" by Alice GreenwayHis plans for isolation and forgetfulness are crushed by the arrival of a young woman named Cadillac from that very Solomon Island. She is the daughter of Tosca Baketi, who, when he was 16 years old, assisted Jim in his observations of the Japanese for U.S. Navy Intelligence. He also assisted Jim off-hours, collecting and studying island birds. Tosca sends Cadillac to Jim because she needs a place to stay for the remaining summer months before she enters Yale Medical School. One day, she lays a golden whistler on Jim’s desk, a bird from her home that’s been artfully skinned and stuffed by her father, who learned the trade from Jim.

Alice Greenway writes with superb command of her prose, delivering illustrative details about the birding life, the drama of war and the challenges of coping with an amputation. The story is deeply affecting, as we’re drawn into childhood incidents about Jim’s beginnings with birds and his relationship with his cruel, wealthy grandfather — and as we’re drawn into Jim’s adult years during the war and later, when he’s become an angry, bitter person.

Jim’s museum colleagues admire his work but struggle to understand him. Composing a profile about Jim due to his retirement, they discover a letter that reveals Jim was almost court-martialed for a war crime, which begins to reveal why he became so distant and angry. It’s one of several mysteries about this powerful character that make The Bird Skinner so good.

And it is good, sometimes compulsively, but there’s a problem in the wide swings in time and place. Even though chapter titles anchor us with dates and locations, the erratic jostling between the story’s many settings fragment the emotional effect. Too soon we’re ripped away from our feelings in one place and time to be taken to another.

The girl’s presence doesn’t develop into anything. It’s a catalyst for Jim’s remembering the past, and it works well as a structural element that is neither forced nor gratuitous. What makes this element effective is Cadillac’s innocence and gracefulness standing separate from the grouchy, emotionally burdened Jim, subtly reminding us – especially in the sad ending – that in a world of horror and disappointment, life still proves to create beauty and offer hope.