Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 164 pages; 2014.
Deirdre Madden’s The Birds of the Innocent Wood, first published in 1988, is a mysterious, opaque tale about dark family secrets and strained relationships spanning two generations.
It reads a bit like a thriller, helped by a few fast-paced early chapters, before settling into an intriguing if downbeat story where nothing is fully spelt out — or resolved. It’s even hard to know what era this book is set in because there is a timeless quality to everything about it, and Madden’s adoption of a third-person omniscient narrator lends the entire novel the feel of a fairy tale or fable.
An orphan’s tale
Set in rural Ireland, it focuses on Jane, who is orphaned as a toddler when her parents die in a house fire. Taken in by an aunt who does not want her, she’s sent to a convent boarding school, where she delights in telling others of her terrible loss to gain sympathy.
Every time she told her story she felt as if she was leading the unsuspecting children to a vast black pit, and when she had taken them right to the edge, she would suddenly draw back and abandon them there. She craved their pity and their sense of horror; and at the same time she utterly despised the other little girls for allowing her to induce these feelings in them. It was her tragedy, and she was never so weak as to cry for the loss of her parents.
When she finishes school, friendless and isolated, she meets James, a local farmer, and marries him to ward off the loneliness. She moves to his farm, where he lives with his widowed father and their farmhand, Gerald, but never feels that she truly belongs. She takes against their neighbour, Ellen, whom she feels is too close to her husband, even though Ellen eventually marries Gerald.
Jane’s story is interleaved with that of her teenage twin daughters, Catherine and Sarah, who are both cold and odd and just as sociopathic as their mother. The twins, however, are vastly different from each other. Catherine desperately wants to become a nun, while Sarah sets her heart on the local boy, Peter, who is Ellen and Gerald’s son.
As the twins plot against each other for reasons that are never fully explained, there are hints of family secrets and untold histories, but again nothing is obvious or clear-cut. Madden grants her readers the intelligence to figure it out for themselves, something her compatriot (and my favourite writer) Jennifer Johnston also does with aplomb.
Carefully controlled prose
Putting aside the plot, and even the characterisation, both of which are excellent, it’s the writing and the mood of the story that makes this novel such an engaging read. Its bleakness and gloomy outlook are only matched by the restrained, carefully controlled prose.
And Madden’s clever use of avian imagery, whether crows being shot out of trees, songbirds announcing the arrival of dawn or nests being discovered in unlikely places, act as metaphors and signifiers of events going on in the characters often sad and troubled lives.
Despite the fact it comes in at under 170 densely written pages, there’s a lot to unpack in this one.
The Birds of the Innocent Wood won a Somerset Maugham Award in 1989. These awards are for writers under the age of 30 and there are normally multiple winners each year.
Simon from Stuck in a Book has also reviewed it.
Deirdre Madden is from County Antrim in Northern Ireland and has eight novels (and a handful of children’s books) to her name. I’ve read four of her novels and regard her as one of my favourite authors.
I read this book as part of Cathy’s #ReadingIrelandMonth23. You can find out more about this annual blog event at Cathy’s blog 746 Books.