The Life Stone of Singing Bird

Melody Stevenson, Author Faber & Faber $19.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-571-19886-3
Time rarely flows in a straight line in Stevenson's debut novel, a sensitive but schematicized rendering of life on the Plains in the 1800s. Instead, it advances and retreats like the ocean tides. The events carried by time's ebb and flow, moreover, group into three distinct story strands which have in common the talisman of the title. Shortly after her husband is slain by Indians during a wagon train drive across the Plains, Iris Fane is given a baby and a plain brown stone with unusual properties by Singing Bird. This Indian, maimed and exiled from her tribe for loving the wrong man, appears at intervals, sometimes as a human and sometimes as a spirit bird. Also showing up frequently is India Baldoon Walker, Iris's daughter, who speaks from her own coffin to relate further events. Unfortunately, this complex narrative structure often obscures Stevenson's thoughtful themes: the problems of children raised in cultures not their own; the unwanted legacies that parents so often leave; the question of what kind of people are worth sharing a life with. Also regrettable is Stevenson's decision to entrust the lion's share of the storytelling to India, who proves herself a jealous and unreliable narrator, cradling her own pain as she asks her readers to discount that of others. A plethora of secondary characters doesn't help, either. Still, there is much to admire here, from the scrupulously researched setting to the deft melding of the rational and spiritual worlds. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 04/01/1996
Release date: 04/01/1996
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