The Painter of Birds

Lidia Jorge’s The Painter of Birds opens in the present, on the day the nameless narrator receives a package from her recently deceased father, Walter Diaz. It contains his legacy, an old army blanket upon which he was rumored to have seduced many girls including her mother, Maria Ema. The narrative quickly shifts to random flashbacks that the reader must decipher.

Walter flees to India with the army as soon as he learns that Maria Ema is pregnant with his child. In order to save the family from disgrace, the furious patriarch orders Walter’s older brother, Custodio, to marry Maria Ema. However, the family refuses to acknowledge the child as Walter’s daughter; she is always referred to as Walter’s niece, a pretense she is soon aware of. The child grows up in a loveless household, brightened only by her father’s letters and his paintings of birds from all over the world, which are sent to Custodio but are really meant for Maria Ema. The mother discards them; the daughter treasures them.

Two visits from Walter are repeatedly mentioned—the first in 1951, when he briefly returns from India; the second in 1963, when he returns to the family as a successful, even wealthy man who has established himself in Ontario. These crucial visits provide the girl’s only direct contact with her father. Eventually she rebels against his repressive family and his desertion of her.

The unsung hero of this novel is the aptly named Custodio, the patient, self-effacing guardian of a disintegrating family. Jorge’s powerful story suggests what the South’s William Faulkner might have written, had he been born in Portugal.