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Ellen McKinnon has an unusual and unwanted gift. More correctly, she has several gifts. She has premonitions accompanied by visions, she can heal people by holding her hands over them, and she has a way with birds. If this isn't enough to complicate one woman's life, she's an Northern Irish Protestant, divorced from her Protestant husband, and married to a Southern Irish Catholic, a situation that involves more divided loyalties than you would expect. If that's not enough she doesn't get on with her mother. In fact, Ellen hates her mother so much that in the opening scenes of The Bird Woman she's arguing with her husband about her refusal to visit her dying mother's deathbed. And that's not the end of it. It would be fair to say that Ellen McKinnon's life is one woman's personification of the Troubles that form the background to this novel.
From an early age Ellen has an affinity with birds. Although this lends the novel its title, it is Ellen's more mysterious gifts that drive the plot. An early marriage to Protestant hard man Robbie ends when Robbie's violence an possessiveness get too much for his strong willed and independent wife. Ellen falls into the arms of the sensitive and artistic Liam, a Catholic lad from the south. Liam is a sculptor, and his mild temperament allows room for the unsophisticated Ellen to discover, reluctantly, her own gifts. Their relationship provides another of the novel's series of dichotomies. Ellen doesn't understand art. Despite her life with Liam, and her close friendship with another artist, the former nun Catherine, Ellen lives in her own world. She is uncomfortable in any situation that involves putting ideas into words. She's troubled by physical sensations she can't explain, until a chance meeting with another Healer helps her to understand the need to use her gift of healing. Even then, she simply responds to those who call on her, rather than promoting herself as a Healer. People come, get cured, and life goes on.
Unanswered questions about Ellen's mother recur throughout the story, and we already know that they will culminate in a decision about whether to return to her hometown, Derry, (which she explains, was formerly known as Londonderry). As the novel progresses the narrative acquires increasing urgency, in parallel with Ellen's need to reconcile herself to her past. Liam and Ellen become distant as Ellen's relationship with Catherine intensifies in a further plot development that is to have drastic implications. In bringing all the different strands together Ellen learns more about herself and her background than she really wants.
In The Bird Woman author Kerry Hardie has created an intricate web of silences and secrets. The notion of some sort of psychic Healer is not one that appeals to me, but Hardie doesn't overplay it. If you can live with the premise of a main character with such an improbable gift, it doesn't get in the way of the rest of the story. Hardie helps out by having Ellen dismissing with contempt, "Alternatives", the sort of people who'd build paper pyramids to sharpen razor blades and who are always ready to believe anything the medical establishment doesn't. Clearly Hardie is aware that her audience is not that group. But there's a remaining naiveté about Ellen that is at odds with her singular personality, her rationalism, and her scepticism about both sides of the Irish question. Make that four sides, or perhaps more. As Hardie tells it, the intersection of politics, history and religion in Ireland means that there's always a way to put your foot in it.
Hardie's female characters are much more strongly realized than their male counterparts. In part this is because The Bird Woman is told as a first person narrative, so we are always going to understand Ellen more than Liam. But the girls get all the good roles in this novel. Liam is fairly predictable, Ellen's father is dead (but her mother has a presence that reaches south of the border), Catherine is complex and intriguing, but other male characters, for all their self-indulgent angst, seem like props at times. By rejecting her Protestant and family heritage, Ellen is freed to set a plague on all the warring factions of Ireland. Commenting on the Good Friday agreement that signaled the end of the Troubles, she manages this scornful and clichéd aside about Ireland's new prosperity:
Thank God that's over and done with. Time to forget the past and move on to mobile phones and shopping malls and self esteem.
Ellen thinks in terms of big issues, something that has a Joycean/Jesuit feel to it, and despite her agnosticism, she even wonders about reconciliation with that other Main Character, God.
Hardie uses her own gifts as a writer to provide some lovely descriptive passages and observations. The weather, the seasons, the countryside are all delicately evoked.
That was a cold, slow spring when it came, reminding and reminding of the North. Everyone was complaining. Not me. It was the thinness I liked, everything breathing slow and quiet and almost -- so you could nearly see through into anywhere else.
It comes as no surprise that Hardie as previously published a collection of poetry.
Hardie also uses a lot of colloquial language, something that I found appealing. We hear about 'hanging a wash', Catherine gets a lecture about what a 'tray bake' is. "A tray bake's a baking tray slathered with four and butter and eggs and stuff in different combinations. You bake it. You cut it into squares while it's hot and when it's cooled down it goes into a tin." When a businessman calls to ask Ellen's advice on his building plans (something even Ellen doesn't have a gift for), she refuses him, but (referring to the man's business partner) comments: It was clear that he thought your man had lost the run of himself altogether. A glossary at the end of the book explains some of the more idiomatic terms, like 'craic', 'farl' and 'Taig'.
There's a lot going on in this novel. There's plenty of plot, plenty of dialogue, plenty of romantic twists. There's a fair amount of the recent (and past) cultural history of a place that produces more than its share of writers. Hardie doesn't take a position on Irish politics. Showing commendable even handedness Ian Paisley and Gerry Dams get one mention each by my count. But if Ellen has "moved on" from the Ireland of religious and class warfare, blind faith, poverty, occupation and division, these issues provide more than enough coal to stoke the engine of this story. Altogether a highly readable novel, but perhaps one that over-reaches itself.
© 2007 Tony O'Brien
Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at The University of Auckland, New Zealand: [email protected]