The Birds of Opulence
by Crystal Wilkinson
The University of Kentucky Press, 2016
Mental illness, illegitimate children, friendship, memories, loss, and family ties have been explored in fiction before, but in Crystal Wilkinson’s long awaited new book, all of these subjects come together in a way that is realistic but not tired, familiar but not predictable, and moving but not nostalgic. The Birds of Opulence is poetic and resonant, conjuring both the beautiful and the tragic in the lives of four generations of characters amidst the bucolic backdrop of fictional Opulence, Kentucky.
Wilkinson has shown her prowess before as the author of the short story collection Blackberries, Blackberries, winner of the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature, and Water Street, a collection of linked stories that was a finalist for both the Orange Prize and Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Wilkinson has also been recognized for her poetry, and is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a group of African-American writers from the Appalachian region. The Birds of Opulence is her first novel and her strongest work yet.
This short novel spans more than thirty years as it follows a group of characters, young and old, in rural Kentucky. The point of view changes in each chapter, and the book begins with the first person account of Yolanda’s birth in the family garden followed by a glimpse into her mother’s mental illness and the family’s and townspeople’s reactions to it.
Setting is often described as a character in and of itself in regional works. In Wilkinson’s work, the countryside, the neighborhood, and the people who make up Opulence but don’t take center stage in the story create a sense of place that makes the novel feel alive and ongoing. You can see the judging eyes of other women in town and hear the gossip as the Goode family is introduced early in the book. It takes another birth to shift the town’s attention away from Yolanda’s mother, Lucy, and her subsequent breakdown. Mona is born to a widow, Francine, who is an outsider in the community. And while people speculate about who her daughter’s father could be, they don’t know that Francine also struggles with her own mother’s legacy of mental illness.
Even though issues surrounding mental health and paternity loom large in character’s lives, the impact is quiet and internalized. All of the men and women in the novel are plagued by memories of some kind that they struggle with or bury inside. It takes years for Yolanda’s grandmother to break the silence about an incident she suffered, until “this coiled and rusted thing in Tookie’s chest finally frees itself, [and] it comes out crisp and clear.” Other characters can’t bring themselves to say anything at all.
Mona is one who remains silent about her feelings, but her actions could be considered rebellious, especially for a young woman. We can see her longing, and how she’s at odds with herself and her circumstances. And we see how Yolanda’s and Mona’s friendship gets them through childhood and adolescence, both of them affected by growing up with one another.
…she thinks of Mona and that nest they made together. Not the Mona who is her friend now… She is remembering the little girl Mona whom she loved more than anything. And more than dolls and tea sets, snowball fights and clubhouses, she misses Mona’s hand in hers. She misses secrets…
All the characters are haunted by their own memories, and by the passage of time, and Wilkinson handles this with skill and grace while capturing the landscape with evocative language that resonates:
In late August, when Minnie Mae and her sons arrive at the homeplace, the country feels like it’s settling down to rest for the night. A slight breeze rustles the trees, and sounds grow up and out around them until the hundreds of creatures large and small become one loud voice. It is as if the night has taken up the voices of the Goode kin long past, and even Butter and June, with their new city ways, have to listen.
Wilkinson so capably and so effortlessly creates this vivid and genuine world that I’m tempted to pull one lush description after another so I can savor her prose a while longer. Instead I’ll say that this is a book filled with characters whose struggles and desires feel real; some of whom, even in madness, long for their lives to open up, sometimes in a way they can’t even articulate. Wilkinson captures that longing so exquisitely that I’ll just close with yet another beautiful moment: as Lucy recalls falling in love, “she thinks of that rainy day… remembers her cheek on his shoulder and the way something deep down inside her cracked open and was set free.”