The Hummingbird's Cage
I went back and forth on the grade for this book. On the one hand, it was definitely above average. On the other hand, there was a plot device I thoroughly disliked and the rest of the novel, while well written, was nothing I hadn’t seen before. I finally decided on the grade I did because I figured it conveyed my mixed emotions perfectly.
The story starts with a few lines that let you know we are in for a hard time: “My husband tells me I look washed up. Ill favored, he says, like old bathwater circling the drain. . . This is all to Jim’s purpose. The unmaking of me.” Joanna West has been in an abusive relationship for close to a decade. It had begun cheerfully enough, meeting a police officer as he did a heroic deed and falling for his sweetly crooked smile and chivalrous ways. She failed to listen as friends advised her that what she saw as old fashioned was obsessive and controlling. She willingly let Jim drive everyone close to her away and ignored the note that said “Run, girl, run” that was shoved under her door the day of her wedding. She deeply regrets that now.
After Jim punched her and she lost her first child she got pregnant again. Her daughter is just six and Jim has never directly abused her. But Joanna can’t help but wonder how long that will last. And she has no idea what she will do. Her one and only call for help resulted in disaster. When a young, insightful doctor tried to intervene that caused problems too. So she feels hopeless, caught in a web from which there is no escape when an offer for help comes from the most unexpected of places.
Jim and Joanna rarely go out. His image of devoted family man who loves to spend all his time with his girls is just one more brick in the wall of lies and violence keeping Joanna prisoner. But one work function he can’t shrug off has them in a bar when his ex-girlfriend walks in. Tall and strong and beautiful, Bernadette seems to be all the things Joanna is not. She is also aware. The next afternoon she drives her motorcycle to their house while Jim is at work and offers Joanna an out. Money and plane tickets and a chance to run. Knowing this might be the very last time she will ever get an offer of help, Joanna takes it.
Jim had apparently been prepared for such a contingency. When Joanna hops in the car to drive herself and her daughter to the airport she finds the car’s gas tank has a deliberate hole punctured in its center. When one of Jim’s coworkers sees Joanna trying to deal with the problem he offers to help. Realizing that the gig is up no matter what she does, Joanna flees down the road hoping she can find somewhere to hide before Jim catches up with her. Then she hears the sirens, sees his cruiser, makes a desperate plea to God and when next she is awake, she is somewhere completely different.
I thought the author handled this portion of the story fairly well. We see Joanna, a smart, semi-successful woman fall for a man who promises to fill the void the loss of her family has left in her life. We see the slippery slope they go down, where screaming fits are followed by boxes of chocolate and slaps are accompanied by tears, apologies and promises for better behavior in the future. We see the special hell the wife of an abusive officer faces as the blue wall of silence works over time to protect and serve one of their own over the victim. This book really captures how easy it is to go from modern woman to abused one.
The next portion of the book deals with the “little touch of magic” referenced on the cover. Joanna and her daughter find themselves in the village of Morro, a town which seems “to exist out of time and place.” Here, amidst the kindly people who take her in Joanna begins to heal from all she has been through in the last ten years.
It’s at this point that the book becomes hard to discuss. I don’t want to give spoilers but I will say that this particular plot point was difficult for me. It seemed a disruption to the first and third portion of the book rather than enhancing it. The reading experience is personal and others may respond differently but it really didn’t work for me. It was idyllic and beautifully written but it almost felt like several hundred pages from another book were inserted into this one.
Because of this part of the story I also felt unclear as to what the characters were truly like. I suppose one could say the woman in Morro showed the true spirit of Joanna but I don’t know that I really bought that. I felt that part three Joanna would have existed without part two. Part three was the desperate, facing the end of the rope person many women become when having a final showdown with their abuser. So to me, part two was not a bridge between Joanna part one and Joanna part three so much as a disruption.
The confusion extends to the secondary characters as well, who are often stock due to our lack of insight into them. Joanna’s daughter Lauren is a typical kid character. Bernadette is obviously a strong, independent and generous woman simply because of what she does for Joanna. Jim is indisputably evil and there are no shades of gray to that. The people in Morro are absolutely heavenly, which makes them a bit two-dimensional but that’s all right. This is really a story about Joanna and her journey to freedom.
This is a debut novel so the author is to be complimented for her lovely, clear prose and intriguing plot. I felt she really captured the emotions and traumas of someone in an abusive relationship and gave us a realistic heroine in Joanna. There were some flaws but the book is still better than much of what is out there. This won’t be a story for everyone but if magical surrealism mixed with gritty reality is your thing I would definitely recommend it. Others might want to wait and see what she offers us next.