Note: I got this book as a netgalley advance copy and I’m exceedingly grateful for that.
Some of the books I get as advanced reading copies are nice. Some I can’t bear to finish. Some, I can’t put down and I want to shout about them from the rooftops. The Birdman’s Wife is one of the latter.
So while I know who the Goulds were, I have no more than a passing interest in ornithology and have never looked at their works. After reading this, I went and googled the lithographs and they are just as exquisite as the novel makes them sound. If you’re not a bird-lover, this book will make you interested in them. If you are, I imagine this book will absolutely enchant you.
It’s the story of Elizabeth Gould, a governess who meets and soon marries ornithologist John Gould, a curator and preserver at the Zoological Association of London. In 1830, John starts on a project to catalog and publish a collection of bird specimens from the Himalayas and Elizabeth agrees to do the illustration. After another four works (and six children, two of whom sadly don’t survive), Elizabeth, John and their eldest child Henry join Elizabeth’s brothers in Australia where they study and collect the local wildlife. Back in London two years (and another child) later, Elizabeth works on ‘Birds of Australia’, an epic work of 600 lithographic plates. This contribution to ornithology (including 328 new species) is what the Gould’s are most know for. Elizabeth then unfortunately dies of childbed fever shortly after the birth of her 8th child, in 1841.
That’s the basic premise of the book and outlined as such, looks stiff and boring.
Luckily, the prose is gorgeous, the flow fast paced and eager and the characters beautifully rendered. Ashley has done an amazing job of getting the reader to dive deep into Elizabeth’s world – not only do you go on her journeys with her, but you do so as an intimate friend. I felt like I was immersed in her life, following along as if Elizabeth herself was talking to me over tea (or a nice port), and the tragic ending caught me a little off guard.
But it’s not just a wonderfully written and easy to read story – it’s a very well researched work, with impeccable science to back it up. Ashley wrote the novel for her PhD, and spent four years doing the work, including becoming a volunteer taxidermist and avid birdwatcher. Science doesn’t make the book boring, instead it enriches it. I knew this was a first novel when I requested it, but Ashley writes as a master (which she indeed is, having received several awards and scholarships for her prose) and effortlessly integrates her research with her storytelling. She is currently (according to her website) researching a book on the “scandalously audacious life of a seventeenth-century French fairy tale writer” which I’m sure will be every bit as delicious as her debut.
I loved the setting of this book, early to mid 19th century Britain and Australia, and I loved even more when birds were mentioned that I knew about. I loved the diary style writing, including the daily ephemera of every day life and conversations with her husband. I loved that Ashley delves into the process of artwork, the vagaries of the muse and the excitement of new technology. I loved the dilemma of leaving her children behind, which is heartwrenching and real and beautifully written. I didn’t love that the book starts when she meets Gould, as I see that as taking some of Elizabeth’s extraordinary personhood away (although, it is called the Birdman’s Wife, so I guess it makes sense to start when she becomes that). I didn’t love that the book wasn’t a million pages longer (although I see the need to keep it under 400 pages). Also, goddammit, I didn’t love that she up and dies. It’s actually quite devastating, which shows Ashley’s skill as a writer – not only do you enter the world of the Gould’s, but you become friendly with them. You forgive John his never ending drive, seeing it as passion. You think fondly of Mary and Daisy, their devotion to Elizabeth. You look forward to seeing the children blossom and grow. And you come to love Elizabeth as a cherished friend, one whose untimely passing is deeply mourned.
To write a book based so heavily in a narrow branch of natural sciences where you still fall in love with the characters is surely the sign of an accomplished and amazing author – Melissa Ashley is certainly that.