Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull. First read: 344/344.
This is such an odd book.
It’s a first book, and it’s a fairytale. It is about two girls, Summer and Bird, whose parents disappear one night, and who have to go underground to find them in a land filled with birds and open sky. It’s a swan princess story and a selkie story, because their mother is the missing queen of birds, and their father stole her coat of feathers once. There is a further place where birds go, called the Green Home, but without the queen to lead them, they die trying to get there; and there is a World Tree being gnawed on by a snake for thousands of years until the snake wins. There is a phoenix. There are maps made of songs and languages owned by birds. There is a woman called the Puppeteer who used to be a dancer and who eats birds alive, who wants to be queen.
The language of this story is confident, evocative, brittle and bloody–line for line it’s just really good prose, and so many of the images have a crackling uncomfortable feeling that I couldn’t help getting it under my skin. The ideas in it are excellent. But I had trouble with this book anyway.
One thing, I think, was that the book tries to weave through its in a way that is practically impossible to manage. The two strong cords that run through it are Summer and Bird, who spend most of the story separated both geographically and emotionally–that is to say, their changing emotions and relationships, unable even to react directly to each other, are not always strong cords. And weaving around them, frequently out of linear order, are stories and the living reincarnations of stories, and things that one sister finds that we later learn another sister has already done, and that is why she was able to find them. Occasionally the omniscient narrator appears for the space of a line or two and tells you what Bird will say a hundred pages later, or that this is the last time such and such a character will ever appear; that’s pretty daring, and I was wary of it while I was reading. In any case, the pattern never quite seems to mesh, and sometimes amidst all the birds it’s hard to recall if you’ve read this particular legend before.
The narrator’s spoilers are a gambit that could have wound up either irritatingly repetitive or slotting together perfectly the reader’s tension and the written story. What happens, though, is I think a symptom of the other odd fault of this book–practically nothing. The moments come and then they go and there’s hardly a ripple. This happens all along–for all the evocative language and the strange, alienating perils and the slow growth of self-awareness in Summer and Bird, the book has almost no dynamics. It plucks along at a mezzopiano, and there are essentially no crescendos. Regardless of the intensity of the imagery of the intensity of the characters’ emotions, nothing happened to me, emotionally. I couldn’t feel the shape of the story in how it was structured, but I also couldn’t feel it through the blanket of Catmull’s chosen voice.
It’s an odd problem–she is good at controlling her voice, except the book is about wildness in many respects, and it doesn’t ever feel wild. It’s too controlled. It’s too loyal to its fairy-tale origins. It does not break out anywhere in the places where it ought to be kicking and screaming, and it gives you the facts in places where you should be teasing them out for yourself with your breath caught. In the end, I understand that things have changed, but I can’t find the weight of them.
There is one line, where Summer is horrified at the realization that her actions have enough weight with her sister that she could literally cause Bird’s death without meaning to–that line is very good. “Bird, why are you always being killed by me, please stop being mine to kill.” That reaches down and scoops out the heart of a complicated, deeply important sentiment, about love and anger and unwanted mutual destruction. The book suggests so much of this without its suggestions being able to touch me, though.
What I would do with this book is paint. I would paint every single scene, because all of them are stark and prickling and the savor of them sits on your tongue. They are excellent paintings–but the problem is, I think, that paintings is what they are, paintings and weavings, and this is supposed to be a song.
(Quote from p281 of the hardcover edition.)