Women and Autonomy in “The Birdcatcher”

What happens when your spouse keeps trying to kill you in vastly different ways such that you’re never sure when or where the next attack will occur or what form it might take? This is the question Gayl Jones asks in her new novel, The Birdcatcher.

Catherine Shuger, a renowned sculptor, has been declared criminally insane following repeated attempts to murder her husband, Ernest. Ernest, however, refuses to abandon Catherine; he visits her during her hospitalizations, and when she is deemed well enough to leave, he brokers her release so she may continue working on her art. Her past history of violence causes some problems for Catherine’s art-making – she can now work only in rubber or other soft, non-lethal materials. Her current work includes a piece she has been working on for years, a bird catcher made of found materials.

Enter their friend and narrator of the novel, Amanda Wordlaw, a writer of fiction and travel books who serves as a buffer between the couple — Catherine mostly behaves herself and will not try to kill Ernest if Amanda is present, and her presence allows Ernest to earn his living as a medical writer. Joining the couple on the island of Ibiza, Amanda describes herself as a “professional watcher and listener” as she attempts to understand Catherine by studying how a woman can claim she loves a man, yet try to destroy him. However, she also has her own concerns separate from her relationship with Catherine and Ernest, after having left her marriage to craft a life true to her own sense of self.

The Birdcatcher takes place in Ibiza, Brazil, Madagascar, and the U.S. in the 1970s, which always brings to mind a period of enormous upheaval in America. The Vietnam War was raging, the Black Power movement was strong, and protests were common. More importantly for this novel, the women’s liberation movement had arrived. The media was full of women demanding equal rights and pay; young women were questioning the roles and careers that society deemed acceptable for them. Similarly, the characters in The Birdcatcher, Amanda, Catherine, and another artist, Gillette, are also all striving to define and achieve some degree of success in artistic endeavors, despite being told by just about everyone that they aren’t quite good enough, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The Birdcatcher examines ways women attempt to have autonomy in a world where men dismiss them as lesser beings. Amanda’s Brazilian lover Ensinanco tells her, “A woman never opens up for a man; a man forces her open.” When she asks him whether a man ever opens up for a woman, he answers, “That’s not a man’s nature.” Toward the end of the novel, an art critic refers to the bird catcher that Catherine Shuger has worked on for years by saying, “I still think the Bird Catcher deals with a woman’s sexual fate.” The critic’s dismissal of Catherine’s artistic vision and Catherine’s portrayal of women’s struggle to get out of the cage men have relegated them to remains poignant. Indeed, it seems to me that Gayl Jones is always writing about woman’s nature in an attempt to understand what it is, and in particular how much of that nature a woman should reveal. In The Birdcatcher as well as her previous novel, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Palmares, numerous references are made to women who keep silent, both to stay powerful and to protect themselves.

The Birdcatcher consists of flashbacks and present time, as well as dreamlike sequences that defy time and place-setting. Some of the book is challenging to read: a woman shreds her genitals with broken glass; an artist may have murdered her own daughter. The world Jones has created in The Birdcatcher is an uneasy one in which women’s relationships with other women are as fraught as their relationships with men, full of innuendos and negativity, ambivalence and hostility. However, the questions Jones asks about how women define themselves and are defined by others are every bit as timely now as when The Birdcatcher was first published in Germany in 1986.             

Gayl Jones is a masterful, elusive writer. The Birdcatcher doesn’t end in a neat little package tied up for the edification of the reader; it remains vague and dream-like, which is what Gayl Jones does so well. She allows the reader to take what they need and make it their own.

The Birdcatcher
By Gayl Jones
Beacon Press
Published September 13, 2022