Wednesday, August 01, 2007
Jamie Langston Turner's Winter Birds ~ Reviewed
by Jamie Langston Turner
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Bethany House (September 1, 2006)
At eighty I knew I must not delay. The branches of the tree were nearly bare. My method: I sent letters to nine people, family acquaintances, five of whom responded, to apply as Providers of Winter Hospice for Sophia Marie Langham Hess.
The wealthy widow Sophia chooses, finally, to live with her nephew and his wife in a modest bungalow in Greenville, Mississippi. Winter Birds, Jamie Langston Turner’s third novel, is the story of Ms. Hess in that winter season and the tale of the gradual unthawing of her heart in the home of Patrick and Rachel.
The time period spanned in this contemporary novel is about one year, though through Sophia’s flashbacks and memories we are able to piece together the entire life story of this intelligent but embittered octogenarian. The setting is spare. Mostly we’re in Sophia’s room, which looks out over a playground, has in view a mortuary and, just outside the window, a bird feeder.
This book majors on characters. Sophia, the main character, who tells the entire story in first person (present tense, no less), is rich and complex. As a former English teacher and the widow of Eliot Hess, a noted Shakespeare professor, she shows herself to be intelligent, cultured and perceptive. She is also sneaky, funny, and at times a less than reliable narrator, colored as her outlook is by low self-esteem, betrayal, disappointment, and cynicism.
Other main characters Patrick and Rachel, as well as secondary characters Terri, Steve and Potts, are seen and interpreted through Sophia’s eyes in satisfying physical and psychological detail. Sophia’s penchant for people-watching leads to some amusing reflections - like this one at the Christmas dinner table, when most of the guests are gushing about the pin Sophia got as a gift and Sophia, catching the look on teenager Mindy’s face muses:
“Mindy is eyeing the pin, frowning slightly as if wondering how such a small thing, something she would never be caught wearing, can evoke such emotion from adults. Perhaps she will tell her friends about it later: “And this fat old woman was wearing this weird-looking bird pin that everyone was having a cow over!”
Langston Turner’s prose style is simple. In one place she has Sophia overhear aspiring writer Patrick report to Rachel “in painstaking detail” (Sophia thinks Patrick is an incredible bore) something his teacher has said about “two kinds of simplicity – one producing art, the other banality.” As I read this book, I got the feeling that simplicity producing art was the effect Langston Turner was after and, in my opinion, achieved. But if the prose is simple, other stylistic features like Shakespearean lines as titles and the descriptions of bird behavior under those titles, both of which are then woven into the story line of the chapter, make the book satisfyingly thoughtful and layered.
Death is a theme that runs through the entire story. That’s probably not surprising, as Sophia is 80 and feels that her own is imminent. This theme is underlined again and again as Sophia watches the goings-on at the mortuary across the street and obsessively reads the "Milestones" columns from old Time magazines, paying special attention to the obits. Other themes that emerge as the back story unfolds are betrayal and deception. What finally transforms this often pessimistic story into a hopeful one is the message that love has the power to heal and restore.
The Christian aspect of the novel is handled with a light touch. Sophia, herself a skeptic throughout the book, does a good job of articulating common objections to belief. These are countered not with platitudes and sermons but with actions. Rachel, Patrick and others do a good job of showing in their own imperfect ways, what it means to serve and love the way Jesus taught.
This book is easily one of my favorites of 2006. The beautiful writing full of wisdom, literary allusions and stylistic elegance give it the moodling possibilities of poetry. Its quiet but compelling plot, realistic characters and sly humor made me wish it were twice as long. It reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and, like that book, it’s one I’m planning to read again, this time with highlighter always at hand.