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Deirdre Madden: The Birds of Innocent Wood

Jane has a pretty bad start to life. When she is two and very ill, both of her parents die in a fire. She is brought up by an aunt. When she recovers from her illness, she is shipped off to convent school. There she plays on her terrible life to gain sympathy. She gains sympathy but remains isolated from her fellows. After convent school, she finds a job and again plays the sympathy bit and again is somewhat isolated. Finally she meets James, a farmer, and they eventually marry and move to his farm. There she spends most of the rest of her life, except for a brief period when she goes to sanatorium after having a nervous breakdown. She also has three children by James, one who is stillborn and girl twins. Most of the book is about the twins.

The twins – Sarah and Catherine – are nominally identical, at least in physical appearance, but they have differences, not least because Catherine is far more religious (she wants to become a nun), while Sarah is interested in Peter, the son of their neighbour Ellen and Gerald, James’ former farmhand who killed himself while Jane watched him. What happens to Catherine and Sarah and Peter is the meat of this book, though most of the information we glean about James and Jane is through flashbacks.

But forget the plot. This book is not a funny book; rather it is full of doom and gloom, with none of the major characters happy with him- or herself. It is also a superb recounting of this gloom, which Madden’s wonderful control of the language and the dark recesses of her characters makes so vivid. As far as I can tell this book was never published in the US, which is a mystery to me as it is far superior to 99% of the books ever published there and deserving of a much greater attention.

And the birds? Madden skillfully uses avian imagery to reinforce her point. For example, Jane, exposed to death and misery, is horrified at the sight of a dead bird her husband brings for her to cook. Madden takes this even further when she shows Jane’s muted but still negative reaction to the plucked bird. But bird imagery appears throughout, from James shooting the cackling birds out of the tree and Jane watching them die to the end of the book when the two sisters listen with pleasure to the twittering of the birds. It is amazing that this book is under 150 pages, as Madden packs so much into it. Read it.

Publishing history

First published in 1988 by Faber and Faber