Book Review: Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley

Title: Winter Birds

Author: Jim Grimsley

Genre: Literary Fiction

Number of Pages: 209

Rating: B-

Recommended?: Yes

Winter Birds is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. Dream Boy, the first book I read by Jim Grimsley, was fucked up but this is undoubtedly worse. The chronicle of an extremely dysfunctional rural family dominated by a sadistic alcoholic husband and father , Winter Birds is notable for being written in second person, which I initially thought would be a pretty hackneyed way to tell a story, but I actually found myself sucked into the novel really quickly, the prose flowed really well. The issues I had were all with the story, not the writing, but this may honestly be one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve read in a long time, the prose just pulls you into it’s world.

Danny Krell is a young hemophiliac (his age is never made explicitly clear) who copes with his brutal home life by retreating into his imagination and exploring the property around his family’s home, which he and his sister Amy Kay call ‘the Circle House.’ Danny’s father Bobjay is constantly suspecting his long-suffering wife Ellen of adultery, and takes his jealousy and rage out on Danny and his four siblings. There’s never enough money in the bank, and the Krells are always cold and hungry, and somehow Bobjay considers this, along with everything else that goes wrong with the family, to be Ellen’s fault. Danny innocently makes up a protective entity called the ‘River Man’ and watches in helpless horror as his family unit disintegrates.

This book was a bit of a page-turner, I finished it in two days. It’s a fairly short novel, but I tend to be a slow reader when I’m not particularly interested in what I’m reading. I think one of the main problems with this novel, which prevented it from being great, was how cartoonish the character of Bobjay was. He was like a hulking, leering villain who’s behavior didn’t always seem to always be very consistent. I initially liked the character of Danny’s mother, Ellen, but I became weary of her when she continued to make excuses for her monstrous husband. The incredibly disturbing ending came completely out of nowhere, and I still don’t know what to think of it. I can’t say I particularly liked it, especially since the final pages raised more questions than they answered.

Now, I understand Comfort and Joy is about Danny Krell as an adult and My Drowning is about his mother, and I’d be interesting in reading those, maybe they’d answer some of my questions! Danny Krell is gay, like the author, but he is young enough in this novel for the homosexuality to only be vaguely referenced. I also understand that this book is semi-autobiographical, in which case I am very sorry to the author, much of Danny Krell’s young life seems to be a complete nightmare, with little hope or respite from his oppressively bleak existence. Jim Grimsley seems to have an affinity for writing truly horrible fathers, and Bobjay is up there with Nathan’s father from Dream Boy, but not as believable and given far too much time to chew the scenery. Not for the faint of heart, and certainly not an easy sell for animal lovers, Winter Birds is beautifully written but very flawed.


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