"The Hummingbird's Cage" Tamara Dietrich
"Put a frog in a pot of boiling water and he will jump out at once. But put him in a pot of cold water and turn up the heat by degrees and he'll cook to death before he realises it."
Joanna and her 7 year old daughter Laurel live in the small town of Wheeler, new Mexico with Joanna's husband (and Laurel's father) Jim, the town's Deputy Sheriff. The book opens with:
"My husband tells me I look washed up. Ill favoured, he says, like old bathwater circling the drain. If my clothes weren't there to hold me together, he says, I'd flush all away. He tells me these things as often as he can, til there are times I start to believe him and I can feel my mind start to dissolve into empty air."
Prepare yourself. The first 20% of this novel is a heart-rending account of a wife living with a monster. Although having served a short jail sentence and being on probation, Jim continues to physically abuse Jo frequently. The violence and psychological damage he has caused her is quite harrowing and the impact of his behaviour is destroying Jo. She recounts her attempts to leave, to report him, to escape and to challenge him but because of his outward show of being the most diligent and caring husband and with his respected role of Deputy Sheriff, it is impossible to condemn him. The consequences of her actions against him are also devastating.
Help comes from the most unexpected places. One day Bernadette, an ex girlfriend of Jim's, offers Jo a way out for both her and her daughter. Jo seizes it and leaves him.
Dietrich leaves us hanging in mid air as we watch Jo try to escape - an escape full of tension and real nail-biting moments. The next section of the book starts with Jo waking up in a strange house. She finds herself in the home of a kind farmer and wife, in the idyllic town of Morro which is set deep in the barren countryside of New Mexico; enclosed by a huge mountain. With their diligent care, gentle wisdom and insight- never probing, never judging - Jo and Laurel begin to heal.
At about 40% I had worked out the twist but was still intrigued and read on, keen to see how it would play out - and if I was right! The characters in Morro were so endearing and the magic of their "perfect pitch town where whims can come true" was quite spellbinding. I liked how the Native American folklore, myths and rituals shaped the beliefs of the towns' people and how they used them to guide Jo through her journey to rebuild herself, physically and mentally. The hummingbird metaphor was particularly effective.
The most obvious metaphor is probably the mountain that overshadows the town and reflects both Jo's real and spiritual "climb". There is a deep connection with the landscape throughout the novel. Dietrich creates vivid imagery and description to paint a detailed picture of the place, hinting that there is something fantastical about it. As one person tells Jo, "You are a welcome guest. But there's somewhere else you have to be. It's not a bad thing."
As well as themes of ritual, ancient spirituality, ceremony and faith, there is also Jo's realisation that she needs to take control of her life. Despite having been such a victim, Jo is very reflective and begins to make some very astute observations. She wants nothing more than "unremarkable days" and when asked to read her poetry at a public event she realises that her real fear was not standing up in front of everyone, not trying to find her own voice, but "whether she had anything worth listening to in the first place. And the only one who could determine that was me." She needs to learn of what she is really capable.
This book was not what I expected. It is tricky to define the genre of this book. Dietrich's novel fuses dreams and reality to create an unusual story. It's an interesting concept and one which readers will either embrace fully or find a little too fantastical. There is still plenty of tension and drama in the final section of the book which makes a good ending. The characters are quite memorable and I think there is plenty to discuss - as does Dietrich who at the end has helpfully added a few pages of thought provoking questions for Book Groups.
It's been quite a difficult book to review as I don't want to spoil anything or create any preconceptions. My advice would be to give a whirl - it's different and it's well written.
My thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy in return for a fair review. For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk) or sign up to receive future posts via email.