Birds of Wonder – Cynthia Robinson

One August morning while walking her dog, high-school English teacher Beatrice Ousterhout stumbles over the dead body of a student, Amber Inglin, who was to play the lead in Beatrice’s production of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. Barely able to speak, Beatrice calls the police. That is to say, she calls her daughter. Jes is a detective with two years of experience under her belt and a personal life composed primarily of a string of one-night-stands, including the owner of the field in which Beatrice has found Amber. In addition to a house and a field, Child Services lawyer Liam Walsh owns a vineyard, where Amber Inglin, along with a handful of other teens who’ve had difficulty negotiating the foster system, was an intern. Set among the hills and lakes of upstate New York and told in six vibrantly distinct voices, this complex and original narrative chronicles the rippling effects of a young girl’s death through a densely intertwined community. By turns funny, fierce, lyrical and horrifying, BIRDS OF WONDER probes family ties, the stresses that break them, and the pasts that never really let us go.

My review

As Cynthia already tells us: “Don’t expect a traditional crime novel or psychological thriller all the way through. It does start out that way, but then—purposefully—veers off into other territory.”
Birds of Wonder is not a real crime or thriller. When the story starts with the murdered Amber Inglin, found dead in a field, you first think of a crime story to come. But then, the story is told through different eyes. With each new story, the confusion gets bigger and bigger.

I found the first part of the book a little tough to get trough. We move from Beatrice to Jes (her daughter, detective at the local police), to Liam (owner of the field where Amber is found), Edward (the one who brought Amber home after babysitting at his sister’s place), Connor (brother of Amber’s best friend Meghan, living with the same foster parents as Amber) and Waldo (employee of Liam, working near the fields where Amber is found). They all seem connected to the murder, or aren’t they?

What secrets do all those people have and what is their relationship to Amber? Could one of them have done the horrible act of murder and severing her hand?

In the second half of the book, the different stories merge into one total story in which everybody’s role is clear. The book didn’t give me an epiphany at the end of the book, but I was compelled to hold on to the last page.

So in all a nice read. It didn’t blow me of my socks, but for a debut it was a pretty inventive story. So, three out of five stars from me. And a special thank you to Standing Stone Books for providing the arc.

About the author

Cynthia Robinson

Cynthia Robinson is a writer and art historian based in
Ithaca, New York. Her short fiction has been published

by The Arkansas Review, Epoch, The Missouri Review, Slice, and others. She is Mary Donlon Alger Professor of Medieval and Islamic Art at Cornell University and has recently, following a very long hiatus, returned to fiction with her first novel, Birds of Wonder.
Birds of Wonder will be available via Amazon and other fine booksellers on February 20, 2018. To learn more visit cynthiarobinsonbooks.com and connect with Robinson on Goodreads and Instagram.

Read an excerpt

Edward painted girls. Girls, in fact, were his discovery.

He found them, mostly in magazines, the filthier the better. They had to be white, so the light could shine through the skin, not just on it. His chosen ones, he cleaned up. Heads and shoulders—never bodies. Faces framed by billows of hair you could sink your face into, necks like warm, slender columns of marble, clavicles bowed like a bird’s wing, the hollows dark and secretive. With every passing week, his girls were inching closer and closer toward perfection—according to his particular definition of the term—frozen in that exquisite moment between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, when molecules and cells twine themselves into lustrous hair, clear pink nails, skin like butter and cream.

His girls, though idealized–his gallerist wielded the adjective like a bludgeon; Edward would have bet his nonexistent retirement savings the woman had never read Plato—were also heart-stoppingly close to real. Each eyelash a whip of three-dimensional beauty, skin textured to believability, inviting touch—he’d learned a thing or two from his days as a photorealist, his girls looked as though they might burst right off the canvas. But they were frozen there, in space and in time, in the moment he had captured, saving them from the inevitable slide—from perfection there was nowhere to go but down—into the prosaic, the everyday, decay and decrepitude.

And his girls represented a sacrifice. Up until two years ago, he’d had a good gallery in MidTown. But then he’d been doing something the art world recognized, derivative though it was. A well-known critic had even attended Edward’s MFA show—he now wrote for the The New Yorker; Edward kept a notebook of his reviews, penning dissenting comments, precisely and in red, in the margins. The man had hailed his work as a new twist in Photorealism—meat-packing district diner scenes, transvestites after they’d been clubbing all night. The later the better—the baggier the under-eye circles, the redder the zits and the scars beneath the makeup. His work had been lauded because of the outré subject matter (it was a cheap shot and he’d known exactly what he was doing when he’d taken it). Following the critic’s review, he’d begun to sell, at first only a trickle, it was true, but he’d been on his way, even a couple of musems had bought small pieces, and eventually he was living decently on the sale of his work, the leaner times supplemented with the steadiness of underpaid teaching.

But then had come the epiphany. One summer evening after an opening—not his, but an artist also represented by his gallery, they’d been a kind of fraternity back then, now they all avoided him—he’d followed a golden-haired girl through the park, the dying light on her skin wouldn’t let him do otherwise. Even though he’d lost her—and he’d had no idea what he’d have said even if he’d caught up to her—by the time he’d reached his studio, he’d known he couldn’t keep doing it.

Publisher: Standing Stone Books

Published: February 2018

ISBN: 9781641365260

My Rating: ♥♥♥

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