The Bird Skinnerby Alice Greenway
Jim Kennoway was once an esteemed member of the ornithology department at the Museum of Natural History in New York, collecting and skinning birds as specimens. Slowing down from a hard-lived life and a recent leg amputation, Jim retreats to an island in Maine: to drink, smoke, and to be left alone. As a young man he worked for Naval Intelligence during World
Jim Kennoway was once an esteemed member of the ornithology department at the Museum of Natural History in New York, collecting and skinning birds as specimens. Slowing down from a hard-lived life and a recent leg amputation, Jim retreats to an island in Maine: to drink, smoke, and to be left alone. As a young man he worked for Naval Intelligence during World War II in the Solomon Islands. While spying on Japanese shipping from behind enemy lines, Jim befriended Tosca, a young islander who worked with him as a scout. Now, thirty years later, Tosca has sent his daughter Cadillac to stay with Jim in the weeks before she begins premedical studies at Yale. She arrives to Jim’s consternation, yet she will capture his heart and the hearts of everyone she meets, irrevocably changing their lives.
Written in lush, lyrical proserich in island detail, redolent of Maine in summer and of the PacificThe Bird Skinner is wise and wrenching, an unforgettable masterwork from an extraordinarily skillful novelist.
Isolated, insular ornithologist Jim Carroway, protagonist of Greenway’s evocative second novel (after White Ghost Girls), has been drawn to islands all his life, so it’s no wonder that in old age, having lost his wife, his leg, and the will to live, he withdraws to the Maine island where he passed his childhood summers. There he remains, confined by disability, drink, memory, and guilt, until the daughter of a Melanesian boy he befriended in wartime arrives from the Solomon Islands to disturb his miserable peace. In image-rich language, Greenway describes Penobscot Bay’s Fox Island in the 1970s, the Pacific islands during World War II, and Cumberland Island, Georgia, in 1917. Each island features its own landscape and birdlife, which Greenway captures in words and drawings scattered throughout the text. As an adult, Jim works on the island of Manhattan, at the Museum of Natural History, where he catalogues bird specimens with bird skins, many of which he’s collected himself. The distinctive environments of disparate islands, interwoven with alternately romantic and horrific flashbacks, create a beautiful, ultimately painful story as haunting as its settings. Gifted at evoking places in the past, Greenway is at her most poignant in moments when outsiders and natives, from hot climates and cold, come face to face, attempting to connect across geographic, cultural, emotional, and psychological divides. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, Inkwell Management. (Jan.)
An Indie Next Pick for January 2014
"Atmospheric and engrossing." People
"Bracing . . . Greenway’s thrilling evocation of young love . . . is as fresh as it is heartbreaking. With an attention to detail that’s both poetic and precise . . . The Bird Skinner knows we are animals, all of us. The natural world is everywhereand despite undeniable beauty, it's rarely pretty." Joanna Hershon, New York Times Book Review
"Sensitively written and gently understanding of human frailty. . . . Greenway’s rapturous prose and warm empathy assert that there is beauty to be found in even the unhappiest lives." Washington Post
"A fascinating novel . . . the reader will have a hard time putting this book down." Christian Science Monitor
"It’s not every day you come across a novel that connects a Maine island with one of the Solomon Islands . . . in a love story that weaves together World War II, ornithology, Robert Louis Stevenson, regret, and ultimately, love." National Geographic Traveler
"In lush, expressive prose . . . The Bird Skinner is capacious . . . this is a novel that soars." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Evocative . . . image-rich . . . The distinctive environments of disparate islands, interwoven with alternately romantic and horrific flashbacks, create a beautiful, ultimately painful story as haunting as its settings. Gifted at evoking places in the past, Greenway is at her most poignant in moments when outsiders and natives, from hot climates and cold, come face to face, attempting to connect across geographic, cultural, emotional, and psychological divides." Publishers Weekly
"Greenway’s limpid, poetic prose; her richly nuanced portrait of a nicely varied cast of characters on both Fox and Manhattan islands; and her evocative depiction of natural landscapes . . . [is] sensitive and finely written." Kirkus Reviews
"A fascinating novel with the peculiar combination of ornithology and World War II in the South Pacific, birds and death, and the survivors who not so much survive as endure. This is a rich stew pervaded by fine story telling." Jim Harrison, author of The River Swimmer
"Spirited and moving . . . Greenway has a marvelous sense of place and history. Her evocation of the war in the Solomons, and her description of the island in Maine, are pitch-perfect." Frances FitzGerald, author of Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam
"Greenway creates intensely believable characters who come from other places and other times. The Solomon Islands become characters as rich and three-dimensional as any other. She captures so well the unsleeping tragedies of the past, and how these bear in upon the present." Helen Dunmore, author of The Siege
"A romance, a compelling story, an illumination of what birdwatching is all about, The Bird Skinner has all the earmarks of a natural history classic." Marie Winn, author of Central Park in the Dark: More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife
"What a setup: A young girl named Cadillac from an island in the South Pacific, en route to Yale Medical School, arrives at the front door of a crotchety old man on a Maine island in Penobscot Bay. The stage is set for this beautifully-written tale of generational tension and kindness, memories and mysteries, war and love, bombs and birds. A wonderful read." Jim Sterba, author of Frankie’s Place: A Love Story
A visit from a wartime companion's daughter stirs up unwelcome memories for an embittered ornithologist in this follow-up to Greenway's Los Angeles Times Book Award–winning debut White Ghost Girls (2006). Ignoring his doctor's warnings to quit drinking and smoking, Jim Carroway winds up having a leg amputated in the winter of 1973. No longer able to get around Manhattan independently, he abruptly abandons his work at the American Museum of Natural History and retreats to his childhood summer home on Fox Island in Maine. Jim seems likely to drink himself to death there, perhaps as penance for the unspecified disaster that claimed his wife, Helen, many years earlier, perhaps to finally extinguish the bleak knowledge that "[h]e'd been stuck since the war." He's not thrilled to be distracted by the arrival of Cadillac, whose father, Tosca, worked with Jim as a scout in the Solomon Islands, preparing for the U.S. invasion in the summer of 1943. Cadillac is headed to medical school at Yale, and it gives Jim some pleasure to know that the bird-skinning skills imparted to Tosca long ago played a role in lifting his family from poverty and getting his daughter educated. But bleak memories--of Jim's mean, judgmental grandfather; of his beloved, ultimately doomed Helen; of his grim experiences on Layla Island--make it clear how damaged Jim is. The foreboding mood is somewhat alleviated by the tender friendship that grows between Cadillac and Jim's son Fergus, but frequent references to Hemingway and to Treasure Island (a book with which Jim is obsessed) do not bode well. Readers who don't mind the novel's leisurely pace and brooding tone will appreciate Greenway's limpid, poetic prose; her richly nuanced portraits of a nicely varied cast of characters on both Fox and Manhattan islands; and her evocative depiction of natural landscapes and the birds whose study gave Jim the only peace he has known. Sensitive and finely written.
Ailing and bitter, retired ornithologist Jim Carroway retreats to a Maine island in the summer of 1973 after a leg amputation. He spends his days drinking heavily, reading Hemingway, and rebuffing any help. Previously, Jim was a distinguished staff member at the Museum of Natural History in New York who ventured all over the world collecting birds, skinning them, and preparing them as specimens. Now Jim's grim solitude is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of an exotic visitor, a friendly and self-assured young woman named Cadillac, who has come to America to study medicine at Yale University. She is the daughter of his old colleague and islander Tosca, whom Jim met while stationed in the Solomon Islands during World War II. Her visit triggers harrowing memories of Jim's wartime experiences spying on the Japanese from behind enemy lines, as the story moves back and forth among 1973, 1943, and Jim's unhappy youth in 1917. VERDICT This is a haunting and beautifully written story about the long shadows that war casts on those who suffer through it. Greenway (White Ghost Girls) offers a surprisingly moving and sympathetic portrayal of a difficult man determined to face life on his own terms. [See Prepub Alert, 7/22/13.]—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
- Grove Atlantic
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- 6.30(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)
Meet the Author
Alice Greenway lived the itinerant life of a foreign correspondent's child, growing up in Hong Kong, Thailand, Israel and the United States. As an adult, she has divided her time between the United States and Britain. Her first novel White Ghost Girls, set in Hong Kong in the 1960s, won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award For First Fiction and was on the Orange Prize longlist. She currently lives in Scotland.
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