The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley

I’m in the tiniest of minorities regarding The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley.

I didn’t like it.

There was too much of what irritates me about (some) historical fiction. Specifically:

1. Info dumping – yeah, the research has been done down to the tiniest detail. But please don’t remind me of those details over and over again. And please don’t tell me every single detail you discovered about the time period you’re writing about.

The puddle on the living-room floor shimmered like glass and without warning Henry ran through it, his footprints shining on the floorboards. If I had a dropper, I could have siphoned it up, I thought. The straw-coloured liquid was a highly effective fixative for grinding pigment, and boys’ urine was still sold by art suppliers for such a purpose…

‘The Governor relished our discussion about the scientific curiosities of the settlement. I think I provided a welcome break from his administrative challenges, from the threats of the English Parliament to put a stop to the transportation of prisoners to New South Wales. Sir John fears all convicts will be sent to Van Dieman’s land, turning it into a dumping ground. Apparently the resources here, what with the drought in New South Wales, are stretched to breaking point.’

2. Awkward dialogue – you know in soap operas how the script writers deliberately repeat details so that new viewers can pick up the storyline? For example, instead of someone walking into a room and saying, “How are you?”, they say “Hello Brooke, how was your day after your confrontation with Ridge? Is he furious about you betraying him with Eric?” It makes dialogue so clumsy and unnatural.

‘The final work seems well worth the sacrifice,’ Mr Darwin pronounced, tapping a neatly-clipped fingernail on his chin. ‘I’d be glad to see one of these magnificent creatures alive.’
‘I agree. Many a time I dreamed of the quetzal coming to life, particularly when I began to paint its sublime feathers. I’m flattered you think I’ve captured the essence in some way.’

3. It’s the ‘olden days’, let’s make the language flowery – a tough one because some authors pull off period language superbly but if it’s not done well, it’s painful.

…Reverend Ewing insisted there was no time to tarry. The hour nigh for hunting, we made haste disembarking the wagon…

…promenaded the banks of the Derwent, gazing into the tempestuous sky stretched over the sapphire harbour.

2/5 Sorry fans….

I received my copy of The Birdman’s Wife from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

The British Zoological Society held a lavish meal in honour of the Goulds –

“We ate savoury pastries arranged like a flotilla of geese on a silver tray, and to conclude our feast we were each presented with a meringue shaped to resemble a tiny satin bird’s bower.”

19 responses

  1. You capture all my reservations about historical fiction. Great review! No, I can think of other reservations, but getting the facts right and the tone wrong is right up there at the top of the list.

    • I guess the thing with historical fiction is that sometimes it is done so well, so seamlessly that I get all enthused again and inevitably make some bad choices. When I think of good historical fiction I’ve read, I realise that in actual fact, the books are few and far between (Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar stands out, as does The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg and Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett – but that’s just three in five years of blogging!).

  2. I so appreciate an honest review. The book synopsis is something that would interest me, but I would be so aggravated by all the flowery language. I don’t mind the info dump so much…I’m a geek. 😉 Enjoyed your review.

  3. Oh dear! I would have been seduced by that cover. Absolutely agree about info dumping. I remember finding out far more about accordions than the immigrants Annie Proulx was writing about in Accordion Crimes, and of course I’ve since forgotten it all.

  4. Those three issues also irritate me. I hate novels where you come across a wedge of info that you feel the author thinks they’ve spent the time on the research and they don’t want to waste it.

  5. I have only one question for any inclusion: does it get in the way of the story? When a character notices something, does it work with the story – or bring it to a grinding halt? Does a bit of dialogue make you want more – or wish the author would PLEASE shut up?

    Granted, that’s going to be an individual reaction to a given author by a specific reader, and I’m odd, but the floweriest language in the world will be a balm to some readers, and boiling oil to others.

    I’d just like to find more of the readers who like my particular balance (and maybe some writers). With seven billion people on the planet, there must be more who like what I write!

    This book doesn’t sound as if I’d enjoy it, so thanks for the review and the excerpts.

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  7. I have not read this book but have similarly complained about the hist fic info dump. It is fun to learn new facts but there is a time and a place for them and a lot of authors struggle to find the right balance.

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