Saturday, August 9, 2014

Nightingale's Nest (Nikki Loftin)

Little John Fischer's sister Raelynn died in a backyard tree-climbing accident and his family isn't doing well: mom is delusional, talking to and about the deceased member of the family all the time. She can barely leave the house and is almost always hysteric. Dad, who owns a tree and brush removal service, has started spending his meager paychecks on alcohol to drink away his despair; this leaves the Fischers in some dire straits financially speaking, and to compensate, John's dad makes him come to work with him.

The summer agenda: cutting down Azariah King's dying pecan trees. Mr. King is something of a celebrity, the owner of a chain of local dollar stores, and Little John's dad hates him but needs the money so reluctantly agrees to prune his property. Next door is the Cutlin family, notorious abusers of the foster care system; their latest child is Gayle, a very strange girl who watches Little John from the tree in their backyard.

The thing about Gayle is that she seems more bird than girl: she's frighteningly small, she clings to the (rotting) tree like it gives her life, and mostly importantly, she sings. But it's not an amateur, warbly voice. No, Gayle sings an enchanting song that has supernatural powers. It instills joy in nearby listeners and even heals a broken leg on a fawn, and once Little John hears it, he's hooked. So is Mr. King, and John can't help but feel that his desire to record Gayle's voice is somehow sinister.

So what did I think of the book? The reason I picked it up is because I heard it was based on a fairy tale, though I admit that prior to my reading Nightingale's Nest, I'd never come across Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" (and to be completely honest, I still haven't read the original). But since I was unfamiliar with it, I had to quickly throw any comparisons or expectations out the window, which was I suppose refreshing because for once I could judge the retelling only on its own merits.

In terms of the plot, there's a lot going on--it took me three paragraphs just to give the opening summary--and I'm not sure Loftin was able to keep a grip on all her disparate elements. The thing about the book that's most interesting (that is, the relationship between John and Gayle) is often put aside to pursue plotlines about John abandoning his friend Ernest after his sister's death or about his family's almost-eviction.

I want to be clear: it's not that I think a book should ever focus on one sequence of events only. There are plenty of wonderful, phenomenal books out there that feature four or five storylines that converge and intertwine to create a beautiful, complex narrative, but I felt like Nightingale's Nest wasn't long enough to do all of that. This is a rare moment for me, wishing that a book were longer than it is. More times than I can count have I bemoaned a book's dragging length (and sometimes I apply that criticism to books that clock in under 300 pages), but I wish that the author had taken her time in spinning her storylines. I truly wanted to experience everything about the small Texas town and everyone in Little John's life, but I didn't really get a chance, and that frustrated me.

The parts that focused on Gayle were incredible, though. Little John's curiosity about his newfound friend is contagious, and that's all because of Loftin's command of the subject. She writes Gayle as such a strange, interesting character; we are fascinated by her fragility, her outward benevolence and innocence. But our narrator is no slouch in terms of writing, either. I have read enough middle grade fiction to have had my share of poorly-written characters that deal with difficult stuff, and they're almost always insufferable. This is not even close to the case with Little John. He's wounded and protective and fearful and stuck playing grown-up in a way that's totally believable and painful and sumptuous.

Perhaps the most interesting character is Mr. King: his fascination with Gayle's voice is creepy in all the right ways, and he plays like a perfect villain character that isn't directly driving the plot. This for me is a good thing, because villains too often are these wicked creatures that push the book into an obsessive "must defeat" path of narrative that I'm quite tired of. Mr. King isn't that way, nor is he even intentionally villainous, I think, which is why I'm drawn to him so much. However, he's one of the elements that goes by the wayside as Loftin races toward the end of the novel, which is very unfortunate for me.

So my feelings on this book? I loved it, but I was frustrated more than once by the lack of space. For once, I wish the novel had been longer because I wanted it to grow and flourish. It's an excellent piece of writing, if a bit over-pruned.

My rating: 4/5
Nightingale's Nest on Goodreads
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