Following “Palmares,” Gayl Jones’s 2021 novel and Pulitzer fiction finalist, “The Birdcatcher” is a spartan work, set in the 1970s and grounded in the turbulence of competition in the late-20th-century art world. “Palmares” was a sweeping 17th-century epic that wove together historical and mythological narratives with magic realism, but don’t assume that the new novel’s slim size indicates a quieter book. “The Birdcatcher” is largely restricted to one vacation in Ibiza enjoyed by a trio of exiled Black American artists searching for escape from life in the United States — as well as a cycle of homicidal impulses. This is a brilliant and unsparing examination of the burdens we place on friendship and marriage, the way that creative genius is misperceived as madness, the clumsy way mental health is addressed, the scourge of racism, and the alchemy of folklore and legacy bound in the secrets we hide.
At the book’s center is sculptor Catherine Shuger, considered one of the best artists of her generation. Along with her talent, Catherine possesses a spontaneous tendency to assault, with the intention of killing, her writer husband, Ernest. Jones allows the reader to draw one’s own conclusions about Catherine’s motivations. And yet, she speaks directly of the pressures that Catherine faces.
Late in the novel, a nameless woman gossips about Catherine: “We all expected so much from her. Change art. Change the world. I always liked her, but she was one of those people with that morally superior air about them all the time. You know. Too idealistic.” A Black woman working at the height of her powers, Catherine carries the projected burdens of being an activist as much as an artist. She’s also damned for those very expectations. Not Black enough for some, too Black for others, her work is scrutinized to the point of exhaustion. Her strain, though hyperbolic, possesses a certain gravity.
Devoted Ernest collects Catherine after her stints in mental institutions and each time, they decamp for exotic locales. Their closest friend, Amanda Wordlaw, a fiction author turned travel writer, joins them without judgment to keep Catherine in a state of peace, suspended from indulging her violent tendencies. The three met at an artist’s conference in Detroit and struck it off instantly. After Catherine spoke “about light and surfaces and how she sculpted using light the way a painter does,” Amanda approached to say, “You seem like a nice woman.” Catherine “looked surprised, stared at me with evergreen eyes” and said, “You haven’t met my husband.” Tickled by their new friend, the couple was more pleased when they learned that she was divorced. “You’ll have all the time in the world for us!” Little did she know how complicated their lives would be.
Amanda, who is the novel’s primary narrator, sees herself as a “professional watcher and listener.” She can’t place why she stays within their orbit, yet “it’s like they need someone else to witness … the spectacle they make of themselves.” As the book unfolds, Amanda’s lack of self-awareness feels disingenuous. Carrying her own secrets and physical burdens including a skin condition that resembles crocodile skin, it’s clear Amanda’s devotion to Catherine and Ernest allows her to ignore her own demons. Theirs is a vicious circle.
The novel is marked by memories, vivid encounters, and brutal conversations. Catherine’s work is judged against her white contemporary, a woman named Gillette, who is rumored to have sacrificed her daughter in the name of her art. Creativity is a means for survival, but it’s a lonely, treacherous, and possibly deadly game. The delicate balance among Amanda, Catherine, and Ernest is impossible to maintain. Detangling the layers of truth, omission, and fiction (Amanda reflects “you remember what you remember. I’ll remember what I heard”), the trio explores the various masks that people wear as well as the stories they tell themselves in order to live in an oppressive society.
Musing over Catherine’s process, Amanda says to herself, “I think she likes destroying and recreating it. I think she’d like to go on forever.” Amanda wants to demolish and re-create her life; running away from her husband and child, traveling from country to country with or without her friends in what could be acts of self-preservation. The sister of one of Amanda’s passing lovers tells her, “maybe passion must take the place of enchantment in the modern world, but sometimes I think there’s no real passion either.” In a cynical world stripped of illusions, many turn to passion but some turn to art. Amanda and Catherine share a desperate yearning to escape and create at all costs. Jones captures an urgent desire for autonomy and beauty during a desolate time.
Curiously, this strikingly relevant novel is actually several decades old. “The Birdcatcher” was first published in German translation by the literary German publisher Rowohlt in 1986. It was written sometime between the late 1970s and the mid-1980s, when Jones was living in Europe. When her German editor was looking for women’s contemporary novels, Jones shared this manuscript. She had not shared it with another publisher and there was no other edition until now. Avid readers may be familiar with Jones’s biography, which is marked by periods of seclusion and violence. What matters now is that, after a long silence, readers are enjoying a steady stream of her powerful writing.
By Gayl Jones
Beacon Press, 216 pages, $24.95
Lauren LeBlanc is a writer and editor who lives in Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter @lequincampe.