cover image The Birdcatcher

The Birdcatcher

Gayl Jones. Beacon, $24.95 (216p) ISBN 978-0-8070-2994-7

Jones continues her marvelous run after last year’s Pulitzer finalist Palmares with the gloriously demented story of an artist who keeps trying to kill her husband. Amanda Wordlaw, an experimental novelist cum travel writer, accepts an invitation to join her friends Catherine and Ernest Shuger for an extended stay in Ibiza. She’s a platonic third for the Shugers, though the locals all assume the three Black Americans are sleeping together. Catherine isn’t allowed any sharp objects due to her history of trying to kill Ernest, which limits her sculpture practice—she’s working on a mixed-media project called “The Birdcatcher”—and Ernest takes her to a mental hospital whenever she tries to kill him, like the time she snagged a bicycle spoke from a trash heap and attempted to stab him. There’s no why, just the what (“You’d think we’d learn by now,” Amanda narrates. “But somehow we keep the optimism”). As to the when, clues suggest the early 1980s, and every once in a while a character speaks in the decade’s bald vulgarity (“Excuse me, I’m going over here and get a closer look at that piece of ass,” a man says to a woman, about another woman, at a party—“It’s talking to me”). The racism depicted in the art world is sadly timeless, such as the white artist who tells Catherine it’s too bad her culture has no great literature. Jones, implicitly defiant, draws deeply from classic and global literature—a well-placed reference to Cervantes’s windmills leaves the reader’s head spinning. And like one of Amanda’s inventive novels, this one ends on a surprising and playful turn. It ought to be required reading. (Sept.)