The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson
2016 by University Press of Kentucky, 202 pages
(I purchased this title earlier this year and it’s a case where the cover definitely caught my attention.)
Opulence is a fictional, rural Kentucky city, and the birds in the title represent its women, specifically four generations of the Goode family. Crystal Wilkinson has created a complete community and by spanning about thirty years through the lives of mainly the Goode family, she reminds us of the ups and downs of daily life while very subtly tackling some big topics like mental health as well as the inherent suppression of power in the lives of women.
The novel is written in vignettes, beginning with the day the youngest Goode female, Yolanda, was born to her mother, Lucy, in 1962. Wilkinson does a great job of setting the locale with her opening paragraph:
The sun peeped through the silver maples the day I was born. In the back field, one of Old Man Lucien’s beagles cornered a possum. The dog snarled, pulled back on her haunches and bit the possum’s neck and hindquarters. The possum, bloody and scared, caught in the first streams of daylight, played dead. Up on the knob, mist burned off quickly into another hot day.
Wilkinson goes from this to describing Joe Brown, a former city man who married Lucy, the woman giving birth to Yolanda. Then a bit on Mama Minnie Mae, the Goode matriarch, followed by her daughter, Tookie, Lucy’s mother. Even a neighbor, Hazel Sloan, is discussed before we get to the garden and find Lucy in the middle of the squash patch giving birth to Yolanda, whose older brother Kevin (known to the family as Kee Kee) is present as well.
While this vignette, the opener with maybe more need toward introduction, does more of this than the others, it’s something Wilkinson does very well—she has a specific tale for each vignette, but she peppers them with memories, flashbacks, side notes of happenings to others at that same time. It leads to a lot of filling in the rest of the story—the backgrounds for some characters and possible reasons for these future actions that are the main focus of each vignette.
Shortly after the birth of Yolanda, Wilkinson allows us into Lucy’s mind as the neighbors gather to welcome Yolanda. It’s clear even before the rushed (not the writing, the event) ending of the visiting due to Lucy’s dropping Yolanda that this is a mother with depression issues. One thing I felt Wilkinson handled very well was the helplessness that her husband, Joe Brown, would have felt as well as getting into Lucy’s head for the reader. Wilkinson keeps a focus on this issue throughout the novel, but not necessarily always in a direct manner, but also through showing how Lucy’s depression affected the others through their lives.
Shortly after this evening’s events, something else occurred in Opulence to shift the gossip from Lucy’s dropping of Yolanda. The widow Francis, an outside to Opulence, gave birth to a daughter she named Mona. Many a person wondered aloud who might be the father?
The novel moves forward, again in vignettes that are chronological in nature, again for their main story. The way Wilkinson fills in the little details that round these characters so fully is what made The Birds of Opulence shine for me. We learn that Tookie was pregnant at age 12 and that Mama Minnie Mae was overbearing in how much she made it clear to not just Tookie, but all of Opulence, that she didn’t care how this took seed, pregnant at 12 was NOT at all acceptable. To follow up on this particular story line, later in the novel we learn just how physically Mama Minnie Mae expressed this and even how much it caught even Mama Minnie Mae by surprise. And toward the very end, we learn of the event that led to Tookie’s being pregnant with Yolanda in the first place. Wilkinson, by leaking this information in the manner she did, brings even more power to that particular thread than if she’d simply told the tale straight up in a single vignette.
Beyond family there is the theme of friendship—Mona and Yolanda growing up so near each at the same age. The differences between them hardly mattering at the younger ages, yet creating a wider and wider gap as they progressed together through their lives. Mona herself is a fascinating character. Perhaps the boldest in the novel—she’s fascinated by sex and the powers it holds. She more than anybody in Wilkinson’s Opulence tries to escape the typical boundaries places on women and their relationships. She handles an incident of a sexual nature with a classmate in a completely different way than Yolanda prior to their teens. She enters a relationship with a married man. In each case she appears to be trying to be the individual that wields the power.
While the women are the stars of this novel, Wilkinson does not at all ignore her male characters. Joe Brown is a complete character—his actions are not simply described as reactive to his wife and her family but for his own purposes. He’s strong, not perfect, and thoughtful. Coming from the city, his regular amazement throughout the thirty plus years of the novel at the outdoors allows Wilkinson to beautifully describe the land and scenery. Wilkinson actually ends the novel with a Joe Brown scene (though technically the women are involved as well) and his final thought, the final word of the novel, might just be my favorite last sentence/word every. It is “Still.”
While Wilkinson does write about powerful themes and events—mental health, gender equality, rape, and more—she does so in a way that sneaks up on the reader. She doesn’t hammer you over the head until you agree with her theories. She slowly rounds out her characters and their lives and it’s simply beautiful the way it comes around. Almost as beautiful as the scenery her readers must envision readers her passages about dawn, sunset, mist, dew, fog, mountains, trees, birds, etc. It’s a novel that based on the happenings to the characters one knows is heading toward an end even though you’d like to keep on reading for many more pages.