Silhouette Of A Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin – Review

silhouette of a sparrow

Lisa Harrison

Lisa is a proofreader and aspiring publisher who lives in a Northern town where people still travel by horse and cart. She believes that reading is fundamental. Find her on Twitter – @immin

As you might have guessed from that review where I talked rather extensively about my desire for filthy Pointless fanfiction,* I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. My favourite thing to watch when I’m grumpy or hungover are those episodes of Maury where he takes a break from babydaddy DNA and instead decides to torture people by chasing them with the object of their phobias. But while there is something irresistibly amusing about the sight of an adult human running away from a balloon, if I’m being honest, I feel their pain. Anybody who has known me for more than ten minutes knows that I am ornithophobic: scared of birds.

No ‘bad lesbian’ jokes, please. I’ve heard ’em.

With that in mind, it was with a heavy heart that I picked up Silhouette of a Shadow by Molly Beth Griffin, which promised to be suitably triggering from the offset – each chapter starts with a silhouette of a different bird. From a design perspective it is quite cute, but not exactly appealing for a girl who routinely crosses roads to avoid a pigeon. I thought that no amount of early-twentieth century era lesbianism was worth subjecting myself to descriptions of feathers and wings and gnarled feet and the bobbing motion of weird bird necks, but, well…

Silhouette of a Sparrow turns out to be an immensely charming short novel about Garnet, a middle class girl trapped by the hopes and expectations of those around her. Garnet cuts out silhouettes of birds and longs to become an ornithologist (horror), but knows that to secure her family’s future she must pack her independence and deepest desires into a lead-lined chest, throw it into the sea, and marry some rich dude who will probably resemble Newt Gingrich in thirty years time. Things change on a countryside summer retreat when she meets Isabella, who dances the Charleston at night and wades into the river with rolled up trousers by day, and who turns out to be a lit match to the tinderbox of Garnet’s longing and confusion.

Unlike The Song of Achilles, which followed clearly defined events and time frames, Griffin perfectly captures the mood of America in the twenties – prohibition, first wave feminism, ongoing  and virulent racism, the class war at one of its many peaks – and it is this that pushes Silhouette to be more than ‘just’ a coming of age romance novel, but an example of historical fiction at its most vivid. What better setting for Garnet’s turmoil than the twenties? Men like Garnet’s father have returned from war as little more than ghosts, pushing change for (white, affluent) women in America. Yet while women have won voting rights, Garnet is still beholden to a man for her family’s financial security. While she is tethered within the ‘old money’ establishment, Isabella has a hard-earned and very modern freedom, and represents what Garnet could become if she spread her wings and jumped headlong into life.

So, spoilers: they totally do it. Garnet falls for Isabella – helplessly, hopelessly, all at once. Their romance has tangible physical longing and a hazy quality to match the summer heat, yet it is also tainted with a feeling of inevitability that anybody who has been closeted will understand: one of the ongoing conflicts is Garnet’s fear that her aunt and cousin will find out about the burgeoning relationship, but, unfortunately, too much of the plot rests on an easy escape route: an opportune weather event, a surprisingly open-minded side character. It is too convenient, and the resulting big-reveal feels rushed and unsatisfying.

But if the novel’s weakest feature is that it finds resolution too easily, its saving grace is in Griffin’s writing style itself. Well-researched and beautifully lyrical, her slightest nuances and atmospheric shifts – stifling, sticky heat; the smell of rain, promising; the cling of smoke to fabric; the curl of craft paper in a flame – captivate, inspire, and evoke that sense of longing and lust that perfectly encapsulate the rush of first love. And it is not just love, but Garnet’s growth as an individual, which makes Silhouette of a Sparrow a compelling and unique summer read. No matter how scared of birds you might be.

 

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* Someone sent me a message about this. It exists. Horror.