A Brief Review of
The Bird Catcher, A novel by Laura Jacobs.
Hardback: St. Martins, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Brittany Sanders.
After reading the synopsis on The Bird Catcher’s dustjacket, I presumed that Laura Jacobs’ promised story of a New York City window dresser with a penchant for bird-watching would portray a woman who was either pretentiously cosmopolitan, refined yet boring, or both. I was pleasantly disappointed when the title character turned out to be an intriguing introvert named Margaret Snow, who is neither unabashedly urban nor an erudite snob. A true lover of natural beauty, Margaret’s passion for birding somehow coexists (and perhaps delicately offsets) her career as a designer of department store windows, leaving her equal parts artist and biologist.
Told with understated compassion and painful realism, Margaret’s story of purpose, loss, and self re-discovery catches one off guard. It is well-paced, well-written, and fearless – sometimes a bit too much so. The several intimate sex scenes, though not irrelevant to the plot, provide an unnecessary amount of detail, distracting from and tarnishing what is otherwise an impressive display of narrative control. But what works against Jacobs also works for her, as this same fearlessness lends an appealing authenticity to her fictional heroine’s thoughts and actions. Margaret admits, “She felt tricked by ego, tricked by sex, and tricked by her own inexperience, which led her to believe that her body’s hunger was also her heart’s.” Lines like this reveals Jacobs’ wisdom, even when her narrative tact might be in question.
Lest one think the title is some clever metaphor, be prepared for several chapters devoted to Margaret’s graphic, step-by-step taxidermy projects, as her fascination with birds morphs from lifelong hobby to consuming obsession to a remarkable (and illegal) artistic zenith. Within this progressive mania, as the details of her personal life slip out in poignant vignette-like moments, one realizes just how much Margaret has lost. As she recalls a friend saying, “I’m not sure that’s true . . . that you can only destroy something once.” But this dark truth is countered with the words of Margaret’s husband, Charles: “Poets never stop singing . . . no matter what you take from them.”
It becomes clear that Jacobs is not afraid of the ugliness of grief, maybe because she believes in the end it will not win; its reign will be usurped by hope and song. Almost akin to skinning birds, she seems to accept—even revel—in the messy process required to create a beautiful mount. In that way, perhaps The Bird Catcher is both metaphorical and literal. Either way, Jacobs’ novel trudges through the emotional spectrum with brave, deliberate steps. If you can handle meticulous details of eviscerated birds and broken human hearts, The Bird Catcher delivers a memorable, authentic story.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com