The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson

I know Crystal Wilkinson mostly by reputation; I’ve read a few of the stories from her well-regarded collection Blackberries, Blackberries, and listened to her reading her lovely essay “Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts,” here. The Birds of Opulence is her second novel, set in the fictional small town of Opulence, Kentucky. It focuses on a handful of women (and the odd man or two), over a few generations: mostly the Goode and Brown family, and their adjacents.

It opens with these lines:

Imagine a tree, a bird in the tree, the hills, the creek, a possum, the dog chasing the possum. Imagine yourself a woman who gathers stories in her apron.

Isn’t that brilliant? In this chapter, a baby is delivered in a squash field, and the story is told by that baby.

The birds of the title are sprinkled throughout as a throughline, something to watch for; sometimes they are women or girls themselves, sometimes just bystanders or witnesses. They also offer something to the titles of chapters: “The Known Bird,” “Wild Birds on Easter Sunday.” Sometimes these chapter titles are like short prose poems unto themselves: “Warming of Old Bones. New Ways. That Hurting Place.” Wilkinson is a decidedly lyric writer with a gift for resonant lines:

A feeling seeped into Mama Minnie’s bones, a feeling like the return of everything lost. Old-time people from across the waters gathered all around her. She put her bony hand on her hip. Every yesterday converged.

The clamor of her own house grows as faint as secrets while she lets her mind ride the night.

Her mind follows the worn path back to the beginning, and she’s only a little surprised that at this moment she can only think in small disconnected spurts, like an old movie reel spinning: a blue sweater, the smell of pine, a large bird’s nest.

Come to think of it, I think I see myself again attracted to lists, as in that last example.

Chapters also refer to the character(s) whose perspective will be featured, so we move from Mama Minnie (a matriarch and rather a seer) through the generations and to neighbors as well… One or two chapters feel more town-focused than character-focused. “Dinner on the Grounds” in particular reminds me of that story I’ve written about before, “Appalachian Swan Song” by Jon Corcoran, for its unusual first-person-plural point of view. This chapter doesn’t actually take the ‘we’ voice, but has the same feeling of a communal gaze. (I wonder if I sense something common between Wilkinson and Corcoran that is Appalachian in nature.) Finally, chapters are also headed under years: the book moves from 1962 to 1995.

Lovely, lyrical writing and evocation of place and culture are the biggest wins here, but the characters and their interlocking relationships, the trouble in those relationships, feel like they will stay with me for some time. Wilkinson is channeling something that feels a little otherworldly here.


Rating: 8 little black bugs flying at the corners of her eyes.

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