The Birds of Opulence

img_2760If you don’t know how much mad love I have for Crystal Wilkinson’s writing, you’re going to hear all about it in this review of The Birds of Opulence, newly released in March 2016.  The story explores life in small town Opulence, focalizing on the Goode-Brown family.  The four generations of women, led by the spirited and strong-minded Minnie Mae.

The novel explores themes of womanhood, coming of age, mental illness, duty, and life.  Wilkinson introduces the characters, while planting the seed of this town and the culture that resides there.  The atmosphere Wilkinson cultivates will seize you and bring you along for the ride right from page one.  This is what is so incredible about her storytelling aptitude.  I was mentioning this to Andi from Estella’s Revenge and she said that she loved when that happened because a lot of authors don’t seem to know how to do that.  I gave that a long hard thought and I have to agree with her.  It isn’t easy to create an atmosphere and to maintain it throughout the story.

The descriptions of Opulence’s beautiful countryside, from the different women and the tests of life they go through, to the food, and the memories they recount, the story gives off deep meaning on many levels in very few pages.  As you may have guessed the birds are the principal women in the book.  We read about the the older women in the story and then we go full circle to the stories of their daughters.  Another interesting aspect is that Wilkinson has brought in characters from her previous connected short story collection called Water Street, which I reviewed and also loved.  So we have the chance to see Mona and Yolanda in The Birds of Opulence growing up and becoming young women, whereas in Water Street we only see them as women and one episode which is a memory is reality in The Birds of Opulence.  We also understand their how they become friends and their connection to each other which is not explained in detail in Water Street.

“Boy give you less to worry about.” (The Birds of Opulence, p. 5) is the phrase that rings like an alarm through the entire book, uttered by Minnie Mae.  Women and men aren’t equal in life’s challenges as much as we would like that to be the contrary and we witness the many injustices that happen to the different female characters.  However tragic these stories, there is still a silver lining despite its bittersweetness and an entryway to more future stories about the people of Opulence.

I encourage you all to check out Crystal Wilkinson’s other short story collections Blackberries, Blackberries and Water Street.  Her sensitive realistic writing style will suck you in and you won’t be able to put the book down.  The Birds of Opulence is a perfect puzzle piece to her previous work and I look forward to seeing what she writes next. Who knows maybe we’ll get to learn even more about Mona….

My copy: The Birds of Opulence – hardcover, 199 pages

Rating:  ****

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Water Street

If you’ve followed me on here for a while you know there are two things I’m not so keen on reading.  The first one is series and the second one is short story collections.  Now it seems as if I’m turning over a new leaf with the later.  Water Street by Crystal Wilkinson is my third attempt at reading them and they seem to be getting better and better.  I dare say I’ve been lucky or I just know how to choose a good book. Whatever it is Water Street is a short Water Streetstory collection you must check out.

The overall themes are about everyday feelings and problems – race, love and family relationships, mental health, getting older, coming of age, among many others.  The characters in the book range from all different types and you’ll want to hear their story during the day and their inner secrets.  You’ll sympathize with them even if you won’t necessarily agree with the decisions they make.  The thing that made this collection stand out for me was the way these middle-class black characters are connected to each other through living in this Kentucky town called Stanford in a community around Water Street.

Wilkinson brilliantly tells each story with emotion, description, and realism.  The stories don’t necessarily finish all tied up neatly and that’s because it’s real life.  That feeling is what drives the book.  This is the first time I haven’t felt like I needed more from a short story collection I finished.  I believe a lot of it has to do with Wilkinson’s first-rate writing and her idea of linking the characters.

Crystal Wilkinson is an African-American author from Kentucky who is one of the founding members of Affrilachian Poets, which is a grassroots organization of writers of color living in the Appalachian region.  She grew up on her grandparents’ farm in eastern Kentucky where they were the only black family.  Wilkinson uses this as inspiration for writing her short stories.  She was a 2003 Long List Finalist for The Orange Prize for Fiction with Water Street and has written other works such as:  Blackberries, Blackberries (2001), and individual works like Holler (2013), My Girl Mona, Terrain, and First Sunday Dinner on the Grounds.  I’ve already read Blackberries, Blackberries and Holler and liked them as well.  I haven’t heard anyone talking about this author and I urge you to give her a try if you’re interested in these themes.  Wilkinson is another outstanding black woman writer is going unnoticed and that’s a real shame.