*My thanks to Smith Publicity for the review copy*
Just look at that stunning cover, there was no way I was turning down the opportunity to read this book.
One August morning while walking her dog, high-school English teacher Beatrice Ousterhout stumbles over the dead body of a student, Amber Inglin, who was to play the lead in Beatrice’s production of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. Barely able to speak, Beatrice calls the police. That is to say, she calls her daughter. Jes is a detective with two years of experience under her belt and a personal life composed primarily of a string of one-night-stands, including the owner of the field in which Beatrice has found Amber. In addition to a house and a field, Child Services lawyer Liam Walsh owns a vineyard, where Amber Inglin, along with a handful of other teens who’ve had difficulty negotiating the foster system, was an intern. Set among the hills and lakes of upstate New York and told in six vibrantly distinct voices, this complex and original narrative chronicles the rippling effects of a young girl’s death through a densely intertwined community. By turns funny, fierce, lyrical and horrifying, BIRDS OF WONDER probes family ties, the stresses that break them, and the pasts that never really let us go.
Birds of Wonder is Robinson’s debut novel, literary fiction containing a mystery; but the mystery is used to display themes of family ties and the struggle to break free from your past. I read this book in two-sittings in the same day, but this book wasn’t for me, not because it isn’t well-written, because it is. But sometimes you read a book and you just struggle to get into it, you know the impact it should be having on you, what you should be feeling, but you just don’t feel it.
The interesting thing is, I think everything in this novel worked as it should. Told from six different viewpoints, it never became confusing and each voice was distinct. The plot is highly character driven and we get a good understanding of the character’s lives – how they are connected to Amber Inglin, and how her death forces them to confront things in their own lives. For me, the most interesting perspective was from Jes, she wasn’t a very likeable character, and seemed to intentionally put distance between herself and her mother, Beatrice. Beatrice didn’t come across as overbearing, so I was curious to know why their relationship was the way it was. As far as her police skills go, appalling.
I think this book’s USP was wasted on me, it contains many artistic references to birds; I’m sure this element will make this a unique and intriguing read for many. I know next to nothing about birds, and I can’t say I’m interested in the different kinds – I didn’t realise the title would feature so literally in the novel. It also contains theatre references – I think those who enjoy those two artistic references will really appreciate them.
The themes in this novel are dark, made even darker by almost every character being unlikeable. However, all that said, I just could not connect with this novel – there was no atmosphere that usually accompanies a close-knit community setting, with limited characters, and no one thing that was able to pull me into the plot and make me invested. But I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking this novel up because there was no major plot hole (although I did think the investigation into Amber’s death was not the strongest aspect of this book) or major failing I can describe – this was a case of: not every book can be for everyone, and this one just wasn’t for me.
I think Birds of Wonder would appeal to fans of literary fiction who enjoy artistic references such as those mentioned above, and personally I believe it’s a mistake to pick this novel up expecting it to be a crime fiction read. Yes, it contains a mystery, and is suspenseful at times, but it’s an intricate character study displaying relationships (mother and daughter, husband and wife, brother and sister), and like the blurb indicates, the stresses that can tear these relationships apart.