Blackbird House

Alice Hoffman’s book Blackbird House is subtitled “A Novel,” but it really isn’t. It is more accurately described as a series of vignettes, as the chapters do not feel complete enough to even be called short stories. Blackbird House, set on Cape Cod, takes place at different times between the pre-Revolutionary period to the present, tracing the stories of various owners of the home across over 200 years. San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Irene Wanner accurately described Hoffman’s narrative:

For the most part, these episodes operate without the formal short-fiction structure of conflict, climax and resolution; the book isn’t a story collection. Neither is it a traditional novel centered on a main character’s problem. Instead, setting and time serve as the book’s linking device.

I thought the idea was very intriguing, which is what caused me to purchase the book. In execution, it doesn’t work, largely because just as the reader gets to know the characters, the narrative moves on to the next story, most often introducing new characters with new stories. The reader never seems to find out the endings of any of the stories that Hoffman starts.

Hoffman weaves her narrative together with several symbols — the color red, the white blackbird, the red pear tree, and the sweet peas, most of which make an appearance in each story. I started to dread the sight of that white blackbird. In the apt words of Houston Chronicle writer Sharan McBride:

The trouble with Hoffman’s linked narrative is that tragedy and losses that seem moving and affecting early in the book begin to feel manipulative and programmed by the 12th story. And when a white blackbird appears or someone smells the wild sweet peas in the field, you know a loved one is going to get whacked as surely as you do when the camera looks up into the cold eyes of Tony Soprano.

There is too much sadness and grief, and perhaps because the reader never gets the whole story in any one of the vignettes, it is easy to wonder what purpose there is in so much tragedy. I think I just wanted more from this book, as a reader, than it felt like it was willing to give. Perhaps that was Hoffman’s goal. In the end, it seemed that the only permanent aspect of life was the house, which outlived each of her occupants, and was ultimately more interesting than all of them.