‘Bird in the Snow’ by Michael Harding

Bird-in-the-snow

Fiction – Kindle edition; The Lilliput Press; 220 pages; 2008.

The Lilliput Press, which is based in Dublin, has been canny enough to publish much of its back catalogue in eBook format and to sell those books at competitive prices. This is how I came to discover — and purchase — Michael Harding’s Bird in the Snow.

Irish widow recalling her life

The story is highly reminiscent of Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side in that it tells the story of an old Irish woman, newly bereaved, looking back on her life.

In this case, 81-year-old “Birdie”, as she is known, mourns the death of her only child, Gussie, a lost soul with psychiatric problems, who has just killed himself. On the day before his funeral, she sits in her house alone, thinking about Gussie — “Gussie was jobless and witless and mired in a confusion of his own making. Wandering around the beaches of Connemara. Locked up in a mental hospital” — and where it all went wrong for him.

As she sifts through her memories and old photographs, she also reminisces about wonderful times with her beloved late husband, Alex, and his best friend Hughie Donoghue, a mischievous flute player.

An extraordinary portrait

What emerges is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman. It’s about a plain life richly lived, where nothing much seems to happen, although everything does. Birdie’s life is marked by tragedy and other family dramas, but she has also experienced great happiness, joy and love.

She’s a terrific character. Strong and fiercely independent, the kind of woman who has spent her whole life getting by without fuss or favour, and who rails at the very idea of living in a nursing home:

The nursing home was a prison. They were all old people in it. What would she be doing with a gang of old people? She was only eighty-one. And the place smelled of lavender. She’d never be able to get rid of that. The perfumes of Arabia couldn’t hide what it was: a glorified henhouse for old birds. And what about the grief of walking in and out of each room in her own house for the last time and choosing what to bring with her? She couldn’t bear that. They might as well give her the shovel and tell her to dig her own grave. That’s what she said. That’s what she thought. And Birdie vowed to herself the last big vow of her life. They’ll carry me out of here in a box, she whispered at the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall.

But there’s a wicked side to Birdie, too. She makes no bones of the fact that in the early days of her marriage she was a bit of a bitch, not to her husband, but to other women in the community, because she’d snared a vet, someone above her station — and “grew a forest of enemies” for it.

It’s so easy now to look back and admit that she was stuck up. To admit that she was too full of herself living in her splendidly detached mansion, with a perfect child on the back of the bike as she wheeled it into town to rub everyone’s noses in the triumphs they all thought she’d never achieve. And even then, she was fooling nobody only herself. Put a beggar on horseback, they said, and she would ride to hell. Whoosh! Whoosh! That’s how her life went betimes. In a whoosh!

But her proudest achievement was becoming a mother. When Gussie was a child her love for him was reflected in her fierce urge “to smother him with kisses like a thousand petals falling off the wild rose bushes on the avenue”. And then, later, this “urge” was only matched by her disappointment in the way his life had turned out and by her inability to understand him.

Tender and funny

The book is very touching in places, bathed as it is in pathos, but there’s little room for sentimentality here, and Harding gives Birdie a very black sense of humour:

And there was a common room down the hall where she could play cards and bingo, and listen to local musicians who came in every Tuesday night. Do you dance? she asked Birdie. Did she think Birdie was a complete fucken idiot? Of course she didn’t dance. She was eighty-one years of age.

I loved reading Bird in the Snow. It’s a wise, heartfelt book about what it is like to grow old, and in its series of vignettes it perfectly captures those fleeting moments that comprise all our lives between cradle and grave.

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6 thoughts on “‘Bird in the Snow’ by Michael Harding

  1. A question for my Irish literature source: We have here another account of the rough circumstances of an Irish woman, similar to Barry’s novel in some ways as you note. I’d also introduce comparisons with empathetic accounts featuring women from McGahern, Toibin and Synge, just for starters. All of the authors are male — I can’t think of a female one. Everywhere else in the English writing world there are numerous female authors, even if the total number doesn’t quite reach the 50 per cent mark. So what is it with the Irish? I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the trend continues even in the contemporary era.

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  2. It’s a good question, Kevin. There are loads of Irish female writers, but few seem to have attained the fame/standing of their male counterparts — with the exception of my old favourite Jennifer Johnston, and even then I’d say she’s little known outside of her country. If you take a look at the current members of Aosdana (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Aosd%C3%A1na_members ) there’s not many females in the mix at all. But if you check out the bestsellers list, Ireland produces more than its fair share of chick lit authors (Marian Keyes, Patricia Scanlon, Maeve Binchy et al).
    So, there’s a real divide here: the blokes appear to do the literary stuff and the women are more successful at the fluffier stuff. Which then begs the question, why is that so?
    Is it because Ireland has fostered the arts and made writing as a vocation acceptable and therefore something men can make a living from (instead of the more traditional bluecollar and whitecollar professions)? Or is it because women are too busy running their households and holding things together that they simply don’t have the time nor the energy to write books?
    Funnily enough, I tend to think of Ireland as quite a matriarchal society (which may partly explain why McGahern, Toibin et al have written so fondly of women and mothers in their novels). But I suspect the invisibility of women writers is a reflection of wider Irish society in general, which for centuries was dominated by the Church and all those male clergy who have put laws and social mores in place that effectively discriminate against women. For instance, abortion, which is still technically illegal in the Republic (unless the life of the woman is in danger).
    But, to be perfectly honest, I’m not an expert on Irish literature, just an enthusiast, so there could well be dozens of female writers I just don’t know about. I’m going to make a mental note to hunt more of them out!

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  3. The only female Irish writers I can think of (from the top of my head) are Colleen Mccullough and Maeve Binchy. I’ve read far more Trevor, McGahern, Toibin than any other Irish writers but have tired of their detailed examination of rural life, having read so many books like that. This sounds a worthwhile read – you’re account of it is as usual greatly revealing of its contents.

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  4. I think this sounds wonderful early on in my working life I work with the elderly and did a lot work based round memories and remembering lives amazing what lives peoplke lived and part of this story touches on some one I support now who went through similar things ,thanks so much for sharing Kim ,all the best stu

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  5. I hate to break it to you, Tom, but Colleen McCullough is Australian! 🙂
    In terms of female Irish writers, I can recommend Claire Keegan, Claire Kilroy, Christine Dwyer-Hickey, Anne Enright and Belinda McKeon all of whom write literary work (not chick lit) — and there’s not a detailed examination of rural life in sight!

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  6. You’d probably like this then, Stu. It’s quite a gentle story and there are moments when you feel sorry for Birdie (for instance, she can’t walk up and down her own staircase, but slides up and down, ever so slowly, on her bum!!) and then other moments when you think she sounds a bit callous. But I really admired her determination to live alone in her own house and not move into a care home as her son had wanted her to.

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