Review by Lulu Allison
Gayl Jones published her first novel, Corrigedora, in 1975 when she was 25. The work was championed by Toni Morrison, her then editor at Random House, who stated that ‘no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.’ The influence of Jones on Morrison’s own work has often been remarked. In the 1980s, with her private life in turmoil, Jones left a faculty position teaching at the University of Michigan for Europe, where she wrote and published The Birdcatcher (1986) in German translation. It was republished in English in the autumn of 2022 by Beacon Press.
The Birdcatcher centres on the lives of two women artists: Amanda, the narrator of the novel, a successful author of travel books, and her close friend Catherine, a visual artist and sculptor. ‘The Birdcatcher’ is the title of one of Catherine’s art pieces, still incomplete, still in progress after many years. Catherine is married to Ernest, while Amanda has drifted, deliberately, away from her own husband and child:
‘I put the phone down so quickly because in the next instance he’d have put Panda on the line… That would have been the thing to turn this witch into glass.’
The story focuses on their identity as artists, exploring the selfish necessities that this requires. Their experiences are offset by the presence of a third female artist, a white woman called Gillette (‘Like she was named after the fucking razor blade’), once a ‘big cheese’ in the New York art scene. Gillette takes soft materials for her art, mushrooms, and uses them to deadly effect, whereas Catherine is forced to use soft, harmless things in the construction of her sculptures, due to regular bouts of mental instability and the many attempts she makes to kill her husband in the service of achieving freedom to focus on her art. There are no consequences for Gillette, but increasingly tragic ones for Catherine’s practice as her range of materials is gradually withheld. The relationship, on the other hand, between Catherine and Amanda (and tangentially for both with Ernest) is pushed and pulled through cycles of allyship and disdain, love and mistrust. As the book progresses, even their shared bond as artists and outsiders comes into question, with Amanda exploring her attraction to Ernest and questioning how many versions of the truth there might be.
The book is evocative, written with a beautiful light touch and, like the unfinished sculpture of the title, constructed of fragments and assemblages. Our perspectives on the lives of the characters jump in time and place as the necessity for human connection, and the then equally compelling necessity of excision, are explored. And with humour, themes of artistic identity, mental health, racism in the art world and the terrible bonds of family are laid bare. The Birdcatcher rakes with subtle intelligence over relationships between people, and whether truth can ever come from a single viewpoint. It proposes that many versions of self are created in relationships, whether between friends, allies or lovers – and none of them entirely to be trusted. The book asks what it takes for a woman to be an artist; whether it is possible for her to contain and manage both the messy compulsion to connect with others and the rigorous dedication and drive that is required for her to make her art.