Three half-sisters, an artist father, a crumbling house on a cliff in Cornwall and a mystery event in their past which no-one discusses. The Birdcage by Eve Chase is about fractured families, the unity and division of a shared secret and the need to acknowledge the past in order to face the future. Told in two timelines – 2019 and 1999 – the story unfolds slowly and takes a while to settle down. The story of the mystery is a long time coming. Three half-sisters – Lauren, Flora, Kat – are summoned to their father’s summer home in Cornwall. Artist Charlie Finch has a chequered history with women, demonstrated by assorted female nude sketches his daughters find in his studio. Charlie is cagey about the reason for summoning them to Rock Point; is he ill, dying, retiring, moving house? As well as trying to work out what’s going on with their father, the three sisters must also unravel their own demons. Lauren is mourning the death of her mother Dixie. Flora, accompanied by two-year old son Raff, struggles beneath the suffocating control of her husband. Kat’s relationship has broken up and her business is in trouble. Add in Charlie’s art studio assistant Angie, former cleaning lady Viv and a mysterious stranger who walks a black dog on the nearby cliffs, and there’s a lot going on.
Everything hangs on an incident twenty years earlier. In 1999, the three teenage sisters are gathered at their grandparents’ house Rock Point for summer with their father who is painting in his studio. The sisters live with their mothers and see each other rarely. It is the summer of the total eclipse of the sun on August 11, a true event. Chase makes much of the strange atmosphere that day, something in the air, the sense that something was going to happen. The story takes a while to get to the secret which is at the root of the constant sibling sniping and jealousy, but this is a journey the sisters personally must travel in order to understand how it made them into the complex adults of 2019.
By the end of the book I still wasn’t one hundred per cent clear which mother belonged to which daughter. The timeline jumps around and many peripheral characters are mentioned lightly and either never or infrequently appear at Rock Point. The final section, after the big reveal, takes a long time to wrap up. Curiously, the Cornish location is incidental. Rock Point, which could be situated on an isolated cliff anywhere, is the strong point. With its idiosyncratic furnishings, aviary of birds, creaks and rumbles, what secrets does this house have to tell?
An atmospheric read – weather plays a big part plus anonymous notes, a dark stranger, talking parrot and slashed car tyre – and the 1999 eclipse at its heart.
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