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Originally published Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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‘The Bird Skinner’: bleak, beautiful tale of a man in retreat

Alice Greenway’s novel “The Bird Skinner” portrays an ornithologist who retreats to his family home after his leg is amputated, but whose isolation is interrupted by the daughter of an old acquaintance.

The Washington Post

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“The Bird Skinner”

by Alice Greenway

Atlantic Monthly Press, 312 pp., $25

Alice Greenway’s quietly devastating portrait of a man ravaged by loss and guilt would be unbearably sad if it weren’t also so sensitively written and gently understanding of human frailty. Greenway locates a bleak personal odyssey amid serene natural beauty, which offers her tortured protagonist glimpses of a world beyond suffering and sorrow.

After one of his legs is amputated in the winter of 1973, ornithologist Jim Kennoway abruptly quits his job at the American Museum of Natural History and retreats to his family’s summer home on Fox Island in Maine. He’s not at all happy to be interrupted in his steady progress toward drinking and smoking himself to death by the arrival of Cadillac, a young woman from the Solomon Islands who is en route to medical school at Yale. Her father, Tosca, served with Jim as a scout on Layla Island, preparing for the U.S. invasion in the summer of 1943.

Painful memories from that time rise up: of Jim’s mean, judgmental grandfather and of his sojourn on Layla, which nearly culminated in a court-martial. Jim can live with what he did during the war, but he can’t forgive himself for how his decision to enlist affected his wife, abandoned at home in an emotionally shaky state.

Over the course of this summer, we see how anger and regret have immobilized Jim as he resists Cadillac’s efforts to connect with him. Instead, he focuses obsessively on identifying the real-life location of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a quest that seems to have more to do with his identification with one-legged Long John Silver than any real geographic interest.

The dark atmosphere is slightly brightened by the friendship that grows between Cadillac and Jim’s son, Fergus. Jim has previously held Fergus at arm’s length. It’s a lovely moment when Jim is suddenly struck by “the boy’s kindness and beauty ... qualities he’s not only overlooked but has never seen.”

The novel stays true to its main character’s damaged nature in a grim denouement, yet it is leavened by a final, mystical vision that reconciles Jim with his past.

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