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Novel set primarily on IBIZA

26th September 2022

The Birdcatcher by Gayl Jones, novel primarily set on Ibiza.

Novel set primarily on IBIZA

This is the third novel I have read, where a trio of people have come together to while away their time – to wit Trio by William Boyd and The Trio by Johana Hedman were the most recent – and I guess this feels like a very popular trope at moment.

Catherine Shuger and her husband Ernest are living on Ibiza and their friend Amanda Wordlaw, writer and watcher, (of course a good name for an author) joins them for extended periods. The main thrust of the novel is that Catherine, given any opportunity, will attempt to attack and presumably try and kill her husband – with anything available to hand. She therefore regularly gets institutionalised but of course when she is in a secure unit, she cannot carry out her great sculptural creations. Ernest is long suffering and the rescuer in the threesome, he tolerates her behaviour, even though his life is constantly in danger when she is present. He however spends his nights out of the house, leaving Catherine and Amanda together.

The novel slides around, trawling the minutiae of the relationships between the three, looking at Amanda’s amorous interludes, Catherine’s drives and compulsive behaviour, and Ernest’s continuing presence in the two women’s lives. Relationships can never really be quantified because outsiders are never witness to the things that go on behind closed doors. Alison is, therefore, in part an observer of the Shugars’ marriage dynamics – the ones they want her to see – but she clouds her understanding with her own experience and perspective. And I guess this is reflected in the reading experience. Life simply continues and, as readers, we are the observers of the observer, with the central couple putting on a show.

The narrative comprises short chapters in the main, sometimes just a one liner, drawing the reader into their enmeshed lives. We know that the Shugars’ relationship is broken but why does Ernest stay? What is in it for him? You see, by continuing to accept his wife back, Ernest enables his wife’s behaviour, condones it as some level, he isn’t the good guy, perhaps he thrives on being the victim; who knows? Reading about victims in this kind of situation can actually be quite dispiriting.

And ultimately why do the Shugars really need an observer of their utterly dysfunctional and enervating marriage? Perhaps some kind of voyeuristic paraphilia (certainly Ernest is rather creepily intent on knowing more about Amanda’s love life)?

There are of course all the inevitable tensions manifest between three people, that is a given. I guess I so wanted to know more about why these three were drawn to each other and continued in a cycle of performative interaction?

Setting is captured through the words of Catherine as the book opens: “Standing on the terrace, sheltered in the smell of oranges and eucalyptus, washed in sunlight, you’d swear this was paradise“, going on to observe that “…living on the white-washed island of Ibiza, land of expatriates, of mirages, of fortresses…“. Both gave me high hopes of a really strong and convincing sense of place – of Ibiza – and there is certainly a strong feeling of heat and colour. There are references to donkey paths, the sea and the rugged terrain, so there is indeed a nod to locale but, to be honest, it could be anywhere in the Mediterranean.

I have pondered at length what it is I have taken from reading this novel. I liked the writing and I found the structure interesting. It felt quite sunny yet dark in many ways. I craved more insight into the characters and the central couple and group dynamics. Perhaps the novel is designed to promote thought about how we see people, consider our prejudices, and that we must learn to appreciate that we can never really know what makes people tick. Will it stay with me? Probably not for the longer term.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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