Alice Greenway’s ambitious second novel straddles time zones, charts unfamiliar land and unearths buried truths. Her present is 1973, her setting an island in Maine, her protagonist Jim Kennoway, once a member of the ornithology department at the Museum of Natural History in New York and now a cantankerous gin-soaked semi-recluse intent on seeing out the last of his days in peace and isolation. As he recovers from a leg amputation, he receives word that an old friend from his Army days in the Solomon Islands is sending his daughter, Cadillac, to stay with him before she embarks on her medical studies at Yale. As expected, Cadillac’s arrival ruffles the birder’s feathers. However, bubbly guest and reluctant host adjust to each other, and soon Cadillac’s presence prompts Jim to re-evaluate his current lot and revisit the life he once led.
Little is anchored in this novel: Chapters change and, with them, dates and locations. From Jim and his island retreat we jump to the museum where his former colleagues are sharing memories to fill in blanks and write up his profile — “an obituary of a man not yet dead.” From there we are taken back to Jim’s formative years learning to hunt with his uncle and sail with his grandfather, before birding emerges as not only a hobby but a vocation, “a way to engage with the world and a means to escape it.”
Greenway’s 2006 debut, “White Ghost Girls,” brought alive the exotica of Hong Kong in the 1960s. By far the highlight of “The Bird Skinner” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 312 pages, $25) is her just as vivid rendering of the Solomon Islands. We follow Jim as he is posted there in 1943, his mission to spy on Japanese shipping eventually playing second fiddle to his passion for finding and collecting bird species. Greenway’s landscapes and nature — jungle and beach, flora and fauna — are mapped and delineated in lush, expressive prose. Equally impressive, although deliberately less sumptuous, are the forensic descriptions of skinning and stuffing birds. Greenway deserves praise for neatly counterbalancing her scenes and varying her textures, whether offsetting Jim’s Maine island with his further-flung Pacific refuge or, when Jim’s grisly war crimes come to light, juxtaposing tranquillity with outbursts of savagery.
“The Bird Skinner” is capacious, with so much unfolding on different fronts. The problem is she doesn’t always linger long enough in each place to let the reader secure purchase on a pivotal event or get a handle on a character. What should be nimble flitting is instead, on occasion, restless darting. Jim’s son, Fergus, is clearly no carbon copy of his grizzled and irascible father, but that is the extent of the personality he is given. Helen, the love of Jim’s life, is more critically underwritten, appearing less as a dreamy, ethereal figure and more as a scant outline.
And yet the advantage of a novel so crammed with history and ideas is that when one part underwhelms there is more to divert the reader elsewhere. Jim is a well-drawn scene-stealer whose dialogue crackles. The bird detail is effective, the topography a treat and the many references to “Treasure Island,” by that original South Sea traveler, R.L. Stevenson, deftly interwoven. Despite its padding, this is a novel that soars.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.