The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson
(University Press of Kentucky, 2016)
One of Kentucky's most talented writers has penned a novel which touches on family, friendships, on women and men, on mental illness . . . and more. The author builds her story and her characters in subtle accretions of words, description and actions. Not too much seems to happen at any one moment but by the end of the novel you have an intimate knowledge of the characters and their stories. It is a powerful way to build a story, to write a novel.
My favorite instance of this gradual layering of details is in the chapter "Dinner on the Grounds" in which the central characters are only mentioned in passing and when they are part of something that is going on in this six page chapter that mostly builds the community of Opulence rather than the story; in doing this Wilkinson builds understanding of her characters by showing them to us immersed in their world:
So here they are, the seeker women, lined up like blossoms in a flower bed, in their lilac and white, daffodil yellow and sherbet orange. Their lace and ruffles and Peter Pan collars. Some outfits are accompanied by gloves. Some with hats. Some of the sisters have elaborate hairdos that sit up like rooster crowns, pomaded and glistening in the Opulence sun. And every pair of succulent, young waiting lips is painted the perfect shade to match not only what the woman is wearing, but also the hue of mahogany or honey or oak that is her skin. They are ladies in waiting, talking in small groups, eating at picnic tables, twisting up church steps, or stepping elegant Jackie-O steps like they are on a runway, just in case there is a man in the crowd who is husband material.
Brothers are dressed to the nines, too. Brothers who might attend church every Sunday, brothers only a few hours from the bootleg house or the dance hall, waltzing into the church yard with their gabardines and their pinstripes and their solid churchly blacks and browns, suited down and ready to feast on food and women. Brothers who are as Billy Dee Williams carrying the heaviest scent of cologne on their neck bones and the slightest hint of liquor on their breath (nothing that a stick of mint gum or peppermint stick won't mask, as long as they avoid their grandmothers long enough to sober up). There is no missing this day for any reason.
Yolanda and Mona watch it all, and learn their lessons well.
If I had to pick out a favorite portion of the book, I suppose it is the chapter I just quoted from. But there is so much in this book in terms of storytelling, of description and more that the book is a tapestry of story and people and twists and turns. The book is not a race barrelling from plot point to plot point. If anything it is more like a Sunday afternoon carriage ride behind a horse in even less of a hurry than you because, after all, you are riding in a carriage and not a rocket ship.
Enjoy the ride. Be thrilled by the enjoyable. Allow yourself to get caught up in the tragedies that are found in life, and in the losses and absences that accompany mental illness. And once you've read the book, reread it to catch what you missed the first time. It's that good a book.