Monday, January 15, 2024

The Red Bird Sings by Aoife Fitzpatrick transforms a late 19th-century Appalachian story into suspenseful fiction

For her debut novel, Irish writer Aoife Fitzpatrick has ventured far from home, in time and distance, setting The Red Bird Sings in late 19th-century Greenbrier County, West Virginia – a rural place where “God hadn’t drawn many straight lines… the boundary between earth and sky was almost always curved and high.” She captures both the attractive scenery of this corner of Appalachia and its people’s proud, self-reliant character, just as a legend-inspiring murder trial is setting forth.

In June 1897, Edward “Trout” Shue pleads not guilty to causing the death of his young wife of several months, Zona, a dark-haired beauty. Believing other venues aren’t producing a sufficiently accurate take on the events, Zona’s best friend, aspiring journalist Lucy Frye, types up her own articles on her faithful Remington.

Although most of the community believes Trout to be innocent, both Lucy and Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, think he did it. They suspect Trout, a good-looking, reliable blacksmith who cared deeply for the animals brought to him, also had a darker, controlling side, since Zona had stayed isolated from her family and friends in her last days. Zona had a secret of her own, having given birth to an illegitimate daughter, Elisabeth, whom she’d given up for adoption.

Some novels hook you into the story from the first paragraph; others take time to gain momentum. With The Red Bird Sings, it took a good hundred pages – a third of the way in – before I reached the point where I had trouble putting it down. It’s structured like a collage of past and present, with chapters alternating between Lucy’s courtroom reports, the touching letters Zona wrote for the much-loved daughter she never knew, and straight narrative from the viewpoints of Lucy and Mary Jane, detailing everything leading up to Zona’s death and the trial. The overall picture felt somewhat scattered, and the characters kept at a distance. The untimely death of any young person is a tragedy, but I wished I had a clearer image of who Zona was, when she was alive.

By the end, I was completely gripped. Lucy and Mary Jane are intriguingly contrasted: Lucy is a bicycle-riding, forward-thinking modern woman whose family came into modest wealth, while the cigarette-smoking, slovenly Mary Jane invites scandal – and her husband’s ire – by abandoning her corset and claiming the ability to speak with the dead. Both being female, they share the plight of having their voices discounted, but they’re determined to pursue justice. And the late Zona herself will seemingly find a way to speak her truth aloud.

After reading the book jacket, which states the novel was inspired by a real-life murder trial, I wondered what Sharyn McCrumb, who has masterfully woven numerous stories from Appalachian folklore into contemporary and historical fiction, would do with the same roots of literary material – before realizing that she’d already done so, in her novel The Unquiet Grave, which I haven’t yet read.

I bought The Red Bird Sings (Virago, 2023) in hardcover from Blackwell’s – the cover (by Charlotte Stroomer) is so enticingly beautiful – but Americans can also grab it on Kindle, which is currently priced at just $2.99. Definitely worth it.

1 comment:

  1. It is a gorgeous cover! Thanks for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge!