For many years, Jamie Langston Turner's novels stood squarely in a class by themselves --- "in" the CBA market but in some ways not "of" it. Turner's writing is often so elegant, so detailed and so richly textured that her books have distinguished themselves in a category all their own. Recently, though, the quality of evangelical fiction has risen to a remarkable degree, and the field of high-caliber writers has likewise widened. With WINTER BIRDS, however, Turner proves she still has what it takes to stay one step ahead of the CBA pack.
The novel's opening premise sets the tone for what is to come. Accepting the fact that she has entered the winter of her life, Sophia Hess, a no-nonsense, relatively healthy but embittered octogenarian, has "auditioned" a number of extended-family members for the responsibility of caring for her for the rest of her life. In return, the selected candidate will be her sole heir. She settles on her nephew Patrick and his wife Rachel, who hold the greatest promise for providing her with the care, accommodations and independence she demands. She settles into their spare room, content to observe the birds that visit the feeder outside her window, watch reruns of vintage television shows on the one channel she can tolerate, and check out the obituaries of notables in issues of Time magazines, both current and past. Oh, and eavesdrop on conversations that take place elsewhere in the house.
We learn all this, and everything else in the book, from Sophia's perspective. And that makes for a languid pace --- exactly what you would expect from an elderly woman. Even so, the story never lags; it's told by someone who has no regard for time, but that someone is both so ordinary and so fascinating that we're easily lured into the running account of her daily routine in the present and the memories of her marriage to a literature professor in the distant past. That late-in-life marriage accounts for the bitterness that has poisoned Sophia's thinking and robbed her of every last shred of hope; the good Professor Hess, as it turned out, harbored a deep, dark and dirty secret throughout their 13-year marriage, prompting the dutiful Mrs. Hess to whisper curses in his ear as he lay in a coma shortly before his death.
Eventually, though, Sophia's world, until now pretty much confined to the four walls of her room, begins to expand as the well-intentioned but bombastic Patrick and the reticent and long-suffering Rachel open up their lives to a motley assortment of friends, co-workers and neighbors --- something they had been hesitant to do since the kidnapping and murder of their two young children years before. Among the newcomers is the rebellious teenager Mindy, whose overly protective parents have withdrawn her from public school and enlisted the help of Sophia, a former college instructor, to assist them in homeschooling their daughter.
In telling Sophia's story, Turner sidesteps the landmines that so many other Christian writers blithely stomp on. Patrick and Rachel are born-again Christians, but never does that fact feel intrusive, even when Patrick gets a bit long-winded in his praying and his expounding on the Bible. It's Patrick who is long-winded, not Turner. That's a distinction that makes all the difference between mediocre writing and the finely honed art of an author like Turner. The faith element is presented subtly, as simply a matter of fact in their lives. And yet, the way they live out their faith has a profound effect on everyone, including Sophia.
But let me repeat --- while "Christian" novels are littered with landmines, Turner deftly maneuvers her way around every one of them. And as in her other novels, in WINTER BIRDS Turner shows her undisputed skill in creating verisimilitude, which basically means --- in case it's been a while since you encountered that word in high school English class --- that everything rings true.
WINTER BIRDS is highly recommended for those who appreciate a character-driven story rich in profound insights into human nature.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on September 1, 2006