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The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones review – portrait of an artist | Fiction

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American author Gayl Jones is powering into her eighth decade with a new novel only a year after the publication of her epic tale of slavery in Brazil, Palmares, which itself appeared after a 20-year hiatus. While briefer and lighter in tone, The Birdcatcher has grim moments. An offstage character mutilates her genitals with the mirror from a compact, and Catherine, the sculptor at the heart of the novel, continually tries to kill her beloved husband, Ernest. Without the constant vigilance of the novel’s narrator, Amanda, she would succeed.

As a meditation on female creativity, it forms a fascinating bookend to Jones’s debut, the bruising Corregidora. Published in 1975 when she was in her mid-20s, that novel centres on Ursa, a 1940s blues singer brutalised and exploited by her partners, while bearing the historic burden of slavery in the form of horror stories handed down through the generations. (Corregidora is the name of Ursa’s despised ancestor, a Portuguese slave owner who raped not only his slaves but the children he fathered on them.)

The Birdcatcher, set decades later, comes from a more comfortable place for a Black female artist, at least superficially. In one of her brief breaks from incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, Catherine has set up home in Ibiza with Ernest to work fitfully on her sculptures. Just as the house contains only plastic knives, Catherine’s materials are limited to those she cannot improvise into weapons: “Glass, stone, nails, wrenches, drills: things I cannot use.” She has been working on a piece called the Birdcatcher “on and off, for years”, which could be a metaphor for the decades-long travail on Palmares. In place of the physical abuse Ursa suffers, Catherine merely has to put up with well-meaning criticism from Ernest, a science journalist. “You’re still on that wretched thing? … That’s just holding you back, it seems to me. Move on to something else.” “I feel like he’s standing on my head and hammering me down,” she complains.

Amanda, the friend and house guest drawn into Catherine and Ernest’s dangerous orbit, is a novelist turned footloose travel writer who has kicked out her own in-house critic, former husband Lantis. “Yeah, you can’t publish this shit,” he once told her, tossing aside a set of page proofs. Amanda fired back that she could list five female writers she knew who lived with men who thought their work was “shit”. “But I can’t list any, not one, of the men writers I know who live with women who think theirs is less than fantastic.”

The Birdcatcher picks up themes and motifs of healing, magic and dreams from Palmares. “We must distinguish our real worlds from dreams, though we live as long in one world as the other,” notes Amanda. Vivid characters shimmer through the pages. In Brazil, Amanda takes as a lover a man who is Black from the waist up and white below, a clear sign of his healing gifts, according to his mother, who magically treats Amanda’s patches of crocodile-like skin.

The narrative is defiantly nonlinear, mostly filtered through “professional watcher and listener” Amanda. There are personal things she wishes to conceal from the excitable Catherine and, for a while, from the reader. Much of the novel is told in seemingly random spurts of dialogue, where the reader must pick up stray clues and make subtle connections; even what look like in-jokes. A woman overheard discussing Amanda’s fiction – “I never heard so much bitch this and bitch that and pussy whatnot” – could be talking about the pungent, jazz-club dialogue in Corregidora that earned the admiration of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. For all her acclaim, Jones’s most poignant suggestion is that to be a successful female artist in whatever medium is to be seen as a monster.

The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones is published by Virago (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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