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 prose - rich in island detail, redolent of Maine in summer and of the Pacific -The Bird Skinner is wise and wrenching, an unforgettable masterwork from an extraordinarily skillful novelist.
Fox Island, Penobscot Bay, Maine, July 1973
Jim wedges the chair into the kitchen doorway, forcing the screen door open, lights his third or fourth cigarette. The doctors told him not to. Cut down on the drink, right down, and cut out the smoking altogether. To hell with that. He lost the leg anyhow.
The nicotine leaves him edgy and overly alert. An irascibility that's hard to burn off, stuck as he is in a wheelchair. He could use a drink is the truth of it but he'll hold off for now. It's the least he can donot meet the girl half drunk.
Go easy. Go easy, he mutters aloud. Shutting his eyes, he wills himself to concentrate on birdcalls. A habit honed since he was a boy. A surefire way of keeping emotions at bay, or safely battened down, which is how he likes them. Gullsthe leitmotif of the island, laughing or crying, however you want to take it. The scolding of a blue jay. The sharp chirrup of a robin. Crowsdown by Stillman's place ...
Readers of The Bird Skinner may be left, as Jim says of his friendship with Tosca, "slightly dazed by how all the pieces fit together." But fit together they do, in a sophisticated narrative that blends seemingly irreconcilable times, places, and people into one lush and troubling whole.
(Reviewed by Rebecca Foster).
Full Review (1160 words).
The little-known Solomon Islands are a particularly unusual frame of reference for a work of contemporary fiction. By contrasting New England and Oceania, The Bird Skinner sheds light on a fairly obscure culture.
The Solomon Islands is an archipelago of about 900 islands located in Melanesia, a subregion of Oceania in the western Pacific. Most of the islands are mountainous due to volcanic activity, others are often tiny low lying sandy atolls. The closest land masses are Papua New Guinea and Australia to the west. It is believed that Papuans first settled on the Solomon Islands about 30,000 years ago. A new round of immigration from Southeast Asia in the 5th century BCE brought new languages as well as agricultural and boat-building...
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