Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book Review: Alice Hoffman, Blackbird House

Author: Alice Hoffman
Publisher/Year: Doubleday 2004

Alice Hoffman has yet again proven her talents as one of the foremost writers on the American literary landscape today. In her novel, Blackbird House, Hoffman takes a different direction and uses one Cape Cod farmhouse to connect different generations of occupants. The result is a lush and invigorating read, one that celebrates the richness of life and love and family and death as each story lingers and then fades into the next.

Blackbird House begins during the British colonial times, when fisherman John Hadley decides to give up the sea in order to provide a more stable existence for his beloved wife and sons. His dream is to give his wife "something precious and lasting and hers alone." Tragedy unfortunately strikes the family before he can fully bring this dream to fruition. The lasting legacy of this tragedy is a blackbird, the beloved pet of the man’s 10-year old son who sets the bird free just before he and his father drown. This blackbird, whose feathers have turned white, figures into the following eleven tales.

The house then falls to a young man who hates the sea, having lost his leg to a giant halibut. He finds love with a young woman who comes to board with him after she loses her home and family in a tragic fire. His love for her compels him to find and bring home the only thing that she wants, “a tree that has pears the color of blood.” This love story leads into a tale of heartbreak as the eldest daughter of this couple recounts how her mother cried red tears when her husband died. The imagery is so vivid in this tale that you may begin to believe it almost possible to cry such tears.

From here the house falls into the hands of numerous occupants. There is Larkin Howard, a young man who must care for an orphan baby abandoned by its mother. There is Violet, in love with a man who betrays her but who ultimately finds true love in an unexpected friend. There is also her son Lion West, whose allegiance to his mother’s ambitions result in tragedy, and his son Lion West Jr who marries a Holocaust survivor during World War II.

Throughout the mini vignettes, Hoffman drops in touch points to signal the different eras. The advent of the automobile age figures into one tale. Hippies take over the house in another and grow marijuana in one of the fields. The house eventually evolves into a summer retreat for two different city families, both seeking a respite from tragedies at home.

Over a span of two hundred years, Hoffman interweaves the stories of the house’s various occupants with the aid of some creative narrative devices. The white blackbird is one, so too are the red pears, water, and even the fruitwood floor in the kitchen. All of these items are nimbly interwoven into the stories, lending additional richness and resonance to the narratives These repeating images are emblematic of the repeated themes that, when combined in various configurations, tell the story of the house at the centre of it all.

Apparently Hoffman used her own summer cottage in Cape Code as inspiration for these tales. Built in 1846, the house had fallen into disrepair after a century of ownership by the original family. Legend had it that her house was occupied by the ghost of a young boy who had died at sea. This tangible background may explain why Hoffman slips easily in to the various voices and circumstances of her characters. She does not dwell on each story for long, just long enough to elicit the emotional core, the magical symbolism to build upon in the next and future tales.

Blackbird House is not a novel nor is it a collection of short stories, as each story is interwoven with the ones preceding and following. The result is a fluid, almost hypnotic reading experience that defies definition in its time-arching quest to comprehend the profound, crazy, and confusing complexities of life and love.

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