Birds of Wonder, the debut novel by Cynthia Robinson, opens with Detective Jes Ashton’s early morning scramble, in the front seat of her car, for dry shampoo, a toothbrush, and her uniform pants, after an assignation with a one-night-stand whose name she can’t remember. It’s clear that this is not a one-off. Meanwhile, Jes’s mother, Beatrice, out walking the dog, has discovered the body of a girl, naked in a field, one hand cleanly severed at the wrist.
The girl, it turns out, is Beatrice’s student, Amber Inglin, who was to play the lead in the high school production of The Duchess of Malfi. As for the field, it belongs to Liam Walsh, one of Jes’s lovers. What follows is a tightly-written narrative—the action takes place over the course of three oppressively sultry summer days in upstate New York—in which the focus gradually shifts from the question of who-dunnit, to a much more complex unraveling of dark secrets.
I read earlier drafts of Birds of Wonder, and watched it get distilled down to its essence—to something sharp, pungent, bitter, and bracing. The novel is often funny, always biting, and sometimes deeply disturbing. It is also erudite: Robinson is an art historian, Mary Donlan Alger Professor of Medieval and Islamic Art at Cornell University, and her academic background is evident in language that resonates with aroma and spice, texture and color, and in references that range from Jacobean tragedy to Greek mythology, from ornithology to art—allusions that wend their way back to Amber, the girl with a peacock tattoo on her wrist.
This is a smart and sophisticated read, but it is never ponderous or heavy-handed. The dialogue snaps with the pith of a police procedural, and the plot speeds along through six voices, each rendered distinctly. Along with Jes, Beatrice, and Liam, there’s Edward, the washed-up artist obsessed with creating the “perfect girl” on paper, and whom Robinson treats with a deliciously wicked humor; teenaged Connor, who, along with his twin, Megan, endures the same foster home as Amber; and Waldo, the lyrical schizophrenic—or mystic—whose mother, in the form of a bird, directs his activities. As we, from these varying perspectives, navigate our way through the maze of intersecting connections surrounding Amber’s death, we begin to discover a resonance that extends beyond this town, this girl.
One of the strangest and most uncomfortable scenes occurs when Jes and her mother have a dinner of Cornish game hens, on a hot August evening, at Beatrice’s insistence. The scene is filled with greedy consumption (on the part of Beatrice, who eats with “pure, carnivorous pleasure”), and grim dissection (on the part of Jes, who “insert[s] her fork gingerly into the plump breast of the hen”). In a novel thematically concerned with the objectification of the female body, the meal, presided over by a dress mannequin draped in black, simmers with lurid imagery: they eat surrounded by the watercolors of birds painted by Jes’s father, the lamps lighting up “orange bills and yellow breasts...colors so saturated they looked synthetic.” And the game hens have “stuffing peaking out between stiff legs.” (Earlier, as Beatrice had begun to cook, “the pinkish hen bodies spilled from their paper wrapping, landing with a wet thud...legs splayed, revealing emptied-out cavities.”) The dinner scene is intercut with Jes’s memories of Thailand, memories she has tried to lock away, of child prostitutes dressed in “popsicle colors”—sweet treats for the men, old enough to be their grandfathers, who accompany them.
Linking girls, beauty, vulnerability, and death, this bird motif winds its way through the novel. Birds are creatures to be looked at, represented in art and photography, consumed, just as women’s bodies are observed, bought and sold, and consumed in pornography. The novel’s title comes from Shakespeare: the bird of wonder is the Phoenix—associated with the peacock in some traditions—and in this era of #MeToo it suggests, if not optimism, at least resilience. The allusion is to Queen Elizabeth I, or, more specifically, to the wisdom and virtue of her rule, which will live on in another form after her death. The suggestion is that, though crimes perpetrated upon girls cannot be undone, there is, as Oprah proclaimed at the Golden Globes, a new day dawning.
The body of Amber Inglin acts as a prism through which motive and character are illuminated. We’re shown the demand for perfection required of women. We’re shown the teenagers who think they can work the system to their advantage. We’re shown the police for whom the dead body is an object of leverage in departmental conflict. We’re shown the discomfort of men who must look within and examine the murkier motives that are belied by their public persona. We’re shown the obliviousness of those who refuse to see what’s right in front of them. And we’re shown the impact on those whose trust is shattered, leaving jagged edges that will continue to tear and wound, indefinitely.
Birds of Wonder
by Cynthia Robinson
Standing Stone Books, 327 pp. (paper)
About the reviewer: Andrea Ingham holds an MFA from California State University, San Bernardino. Her short story, Bird Watching, appears in Salt Hill, and she is currently working on a novel about mistletoe, bark beetles, and the end of the world. For more info on the author Cynthia Robinson, visit http://cynthiarobinsonbooks.com