In Jim Grimsley’s remarkable first novel, Winter Birds, Danny Crell tells himself, his own story, and in doing so illuminates the heartbreaking story of his father’s violent tyranny over his mother, his sister, and his three younger brothers. The novel begins on Thanksgiving in rural North Carolina in a broken-down cottage the Crell children have nicknamed “The Circle House.” Ellen Crell’s attempts at a family meal are thwarted and finally disastrously ruined when Bobjay draws her into a violent quarrel. It leads to a chase wherein Bobjay is the hunter, Ellen the prey, and their five children are caught in between. Winter Birds is a haunting, unforgettable portrait of an American family shattered by violence, and of the lengths a woman will go to keep her family whole.
One word: powerful. This book is a story of power, of desolate situations, of distress, of sorrow, of love, of family, of pain, but noticeably of hope and strength. It tells of the problem of alcoholism and how it has the potential to rip a family apart from it’s seams plunging each individual member into a startling new reality.The book follows the life of Danny a sweet boy who suffers due to being a haemophiliac (as like his little brother Grove) and is incredibly vulnerable. Any knock or bump can cause him to bleed out for several weeks leading him to become a naïve and extremely sweet character. Living in a dream world, and being at one with nature (noticeably the river) Danny finds it difficult to find his voice due to being placed in the middle of a turbulent relationship between mother and father. The problem is that Bobjay is no longer the same sweet man that Ellen Crell married all those years ago but she will push herself to very limit to keep her sweet family together even if that means becoming a stranger to the children that she loves so very much. In the tiny cottage that the children name the circle house due to the circle of the doors that act as continuous loop through the house; leading the way for their mother to run when trying to escape their violent and drunken father, Ellen must find her voice and stop this. Ellen knows that this cannot go on forever and she must face the man that torments every minute of her waking life to seek the chance of a normal life not only for her children but also for herself.
One of the things that most surprised me about the book is that it is written in second person, meaning that it speaks to you as if you are experiencing these events; ‘you wake up, you run here, you feel like this, you see this.’ I have never read a book in this fashion or sense before and it was very surprising. I remember writing a story in school, and being told that you should never write in the second person. However, here (although I won’t lie it takes a while to get used to,) it kind of works! The main positive of the book is the sheer emotion that Grimsley manages to put into the description and the narrative. The way in which the characters are written and discussed and the events that they go through is written so well that you cannot help but feel the pressure that the family are under and the pain that they are all individually feeling. The main character; Danny, is written in a way that he is seen as a vulnerable, and helpless wraith, who in such a difficult situation and environment finds it difficult to find himself as a person. The style of the book is stunningly written and it gives the book a sense of maturity but also of understanding in knowing how to portray pain and vulnerability so well. Another strength was seen in the connection between the children; due to the difficult environment that they are living in each of them has gained their own personal role in helping their disadvantaged mother. Grimsley manages to mirror perfectly the neglect that each child personally feels and in the most disturbing scenes manages to perfectly portray the feelings of betrayal that each of the characters is experiencing.
There are a number of slight negatives; although writing in the second person allows for a more personal feel and allows the reader to emote more greatly with the characters, at times the events or actions get lost and sometimes this caused confusion. However, if the book was not written in the way it was I don’t think that the story would have packed so much of a punch of emotional prowess. Another issue that I had with the book was with the use of characterisation; the book appears to show that Danny is around 8 years old, which would mean that his brother Grove is only around four years old. I thought that Grove was too developed for the comments and the ideas that he was making. I don’t whether Grimsley was trying to show the way in which his environment had affected his development causing him to grow up extensively in such a short space of time or whether this was a slight mistake. The second problem that I found was I thought the book was a little repetitive; although it was about self-discovery and understanding I felt that there was more to the story that could have pushed the ending to a stronger climax. Additionally, the penultimate scene was confusing and I’m still not completely sure of the significance however the final ending was stunningly complimentary of the narrative that ran through the book and it definitely sings of the chance of change and a more positive future. It just could have packed more of a punch to really get me singing it’s praises.
I would definitely recommend this book if only for its sense of style and due to the narrative being written in second person; it certainly leads to an interesting read. The prose is beautiful and the plotline is brilliantly complex but told in a simple stunning way. I bought this book for around ten pence at a bookstall at my mum’s school fete and it was definitely worth that (rather than ten penny sweets!) If you want something that will make you think, change your opinion as to whether you can write a book in second person and cause you to feel waves of emotion this is one for you!