Wednesday, January 03, 2007


10-pages-in book review: Blackbird House

I'm about half way through Alice Hoffman's 2004 book Blackbird House. I stumbled across it the other day on the remaindered table at Chapters. Including the tax and my membership discount, I paid a stellar $2.83 - for the hardcover!

Although the price was the first thing that caught my attention (how can I resist a hardcover for less than the price of a magazine?), it was the reviews on the cover that sealed the deal. On the front cover, there's an endorsement by Kate Atkinson. On the back cover, reviews compare Alice Hoffman to two of my favourite Canadian writers, Alice Munro and Carol Shields. As if that weren't enough, there was a mention of magic realism, and I was hooked. Not even one page into the book, and that's all it took.

Blackbird House is an evocative, haunting set of linked short stories about a farm on an isolated cape in Massachusetts. Spanning from 1778 to the present day, they are more vignettes than stories; each one in the same place but centred around a subsequent generation of occupants. The farm, with its murky pond and fields of thistle and rampant sweet peas, becomes a character in itself and we watch it tranform through the ravages of time and occupancy - and tradgedy.

If I ever become a fiction writer, I think my genre of choice would be magic realism. I've always been fascinated by the genre and its casual acceptance of things whimsical and magical. In this book, a boy befriends a blackbird who cannot fly, and the blackbird turns white with loss and fear on the night the boy is lost at sea. Two centuries later, the snowy white bird still flits about the farm. And the colour red runs through the lives of the occupants of Blackbird House - a vibrant, sensous red at odds with the quiet desperation of many of the farm's occupants. There's the red of Ruth Blackbird Hill's boots; the blood red fruit of the pear tree beside the house; the stain of cranberries on Larkin Howard's hands; and the names of red-headed sisters: Garnet, and Ruby. And blood - viscous red blood spilling, flowing, and rising with passion.

I've never read any of Alice Hoffman's work before (she also wrote - among other things - Practical Magic, later a movie with Sandra Bullock), but after savouring her writing the way one might savour a fine meal, I'm ready for more. The word that keeps coming to me is 'evocative'. These aren't plot-driven sketches, although plenty happens. They aren't even character-driven, as you never get to know a character well enough to understand their motivations. Like an impressionist painting, you can't analyze the individual brush strokes to see a realistic representation, but when you give over scrutiny of the detail to simply experience the whole, you connect on a more funamental level with the people, and with the place.

The stories of Blackbird House are not uplifting, inspiring stories. They are quiet, often tragic stories of loss and endurance set in an unforgiving place. And yet, there is love, and patience, and perhaps most surprisingly, a stoic sort of hope. As the dust jacket for the book succinctly summarizes, 'this is the irresistable story of a house, its inhabitants, its history, and the ghosts that haunt a spit of land.'

At the very least, it was well worth the less than $3.00 I paid for it!

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