I finished Birdie a couple of weeks ago and I’ve had to take time with the story, before writing about it. I’d like to be kinder in this review, but truly it was a difficult ‘read’.
It was obvious to me, only pages in, that I was going to struggle with Birdie. I always forge on when reading is a slog. I make assumptions that everything, at some point, is going to pull together. I know that this is what I did with Moby Dick. In the end, Melville’s narrative was linear even though there was a heavy bulk of marine biology that moved the reader every now and then, away from the narrative. Not so, with Birdie.
The themes and the ‘story’ are not problematic. While Bernice’s story was brutal, it is told with such honesty that I connect with her and empathize with her and sometimes, cry with her. The supporting female characters, also, are to be treasured. The writing of them is observant, sensitive and again, authentic.
The book’s structure, however, is problematic. Each chapter includes descriptions of Bernice’s dreams, as well as her stories. The reader is introduced to new vocabulary in these sections. Then the chapter moves on, but seems to journey from one place to another and one time to another. I never ‘got it’. I never moved, with ease, through the events or ‘places’ in Bernice’s life. If one was to describe the book as a song, one would say that there were a lot of dissonant chords. Even the end, felt unresolved.
I was grateful to see the Globe and Mail’s review, professionally written, validated my experience because I thought that the problem was with me, the reader, not the book.
We spend a lot of time in Bernice’s head and a lot of time exploring her past. It gets exhausting. The novel’s timeline is a mess. I suspect that’s by design, but it doesn’t make the reading any easier. Darting around between events from Bernice’s past becomes more confusing thanks to the sometimes-repetition of these events. Readers may find themselves flipping back through the pages to confirm that, yes, they’ve read about this already, only now it’s stitched into a different sequence. Those who enjoy a linear or even a cleverly assembled non-linear recounting of events will be frustrated. Total surrender to the memory soup that floods Bernice’s troubled mind may be required, but it’s still a tough swim. While disorientation can be a powerful storytelling tool, readers still deserve a road map. Besides Jesse, the Frugal Gourmet (a.k.a. Jeff Smith) figures more prominently in the story, a kind of spirit guide for Bernice. Smith was a public access television phenomenon in the eighties. (His show ran for 14 years, but ended abruptly after sexual-abuse allegations were levelled against him.) A weird choice for a spirit guide, but as Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
In the very early pages, I sensed the protagonist had suffered horrible abuses. I felt deep sadness and I think I DID “surrender to the memory soup that floods Bernice’s troubled mind” in order to move on through and complete the book.
Several reviews describe the book as humourous. I’d have to say, then, that I lack in humour. I found the themes dark, painful and heart wrenching. I couldn’t laugh at the moments that were perhaps intended as comic relief, but that were like watching a vulnerable child on a school yard being spat upon. I can’t be one of those by-standers who gawks and laughs. Bernice is vulnerable to us. She is a metaphor for every child and woman who has been raped, emotionally manipulated or disappeared.
I needed a roadmap for this one.