The Lilliput Press, which is based in Dublin, has been canny enough to publish much of its back catalogue in eBook format and to sell those books at competitive prices. This is how I came to discover — and purchase — Michael Harding's Bird in the Snow.
Irish widow recalling her life
The story is highly reminiscent of Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side in that it tells the story of an old Irish woman, newly bereaved, looking back on her life.
In this case, 81-year-old "Birdie", as she is known, mourns the death of her only child, Gussie, a lost soul with psychiatric problems, who has just killed himself. On the day before his funeral, she sits in her house alone, thinking about Gussie — "Gussie was jobless and witless and mired in a confusion of his own making. Wandering around the beaches of Connemara. Locked up in a mental hospital" — and where it all went wrong for him.
As she sifts through her memories and old photographs, she also reminisces about wonderful times with her beloved late husband, Alex, and his best friend Hughie Donoghue, a mischievous flute player.
An extraordinary portrait
What emerges is an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman. It's about a plain life richly lived, where nothing much seems to happen, although everything does. Birdie's life is marked by tragedy and other family dramas, but she has also experienced great happiness, joy and love.
She's a terrific character. Strong and fiercely independent, the kind of woman who has spent her whole life getting by without fuss or favour, and who rails at the very idea of living in a nursing home:
The nursing home was a prison. They were all old people in it. What would she be doing with a gang of old people? She was only eighty-one. And the place smelled of lavender. She’d never be able to get rid of that. The perfumes of Arabia couldn’t hide what it was: a glorified henhouse for old birds. And what about the grief of walking in and out of each room in her own house for the last time and choosing what to bring with her? She couldn’t bear that. They might as well give her the shovel and tell her to dig her own grave. That’s what she said. That’s what she thought. And Birdie vowed to herself the last big vow of her life. They’ll carry me out of here in a box, she whispered at the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall.
But there's a wicked side to Birdie, too. She makes no bones of the fact that in the early days of her marriage she was a bit of a bitch, not to her husband, but to other women in the community, because she'd snared a vet, someone above her station — and "grew a forest of enemies" for it.
It’s so easy now to look back and admit that she was stuck up. To admit that she was too full of herself living in her splendidly detached mansion, with a perfect child on the back of the bike as she wheeled it into town to rub everyone’s noses in the triumphs they all thought she’d never achieve. And even then, she was fooling nobody only herself. Put a beggar on horseback, they said, and she would ride to hell. Whoosh! Whoosh! That’s how her life went betimes. In a whoosh!
But her proudest achievement was becoming a mother. When Gussie was a child her love for him was reflected in her fierce urge "to smother him with kisses like a thousand petals falling off the wild rose bushes on the avenue". And then, later, this "urge" was only matched by her disappointment in the way his life had turned out and by her inability to understand him.
Tender and funny
The book is very touching in places, bathed as it is in pathos, but there's little room for sentimentality here, and Harding gives Birdie a very black sense of humour:
And there was a common room down the hall where she could play cards and bingo, and listen to local musicians who came in every Tuesday night. Do you dance? she asked Birdie. Did she think Birdie was a complete fucken idiot? Of course she didn’t dance. She was eighty-one years of age.
I loved reading Bird in the Snow. It's a wise, heartfelt book about what it is like to grow old, and in its series of vignettes it perfectly captures those fleeting moments that comprise all our lives between cradle and grave.