BIRD CLOUD – A MEMOIR OF PLACE by Annie Proulx (Scribner, 2011)

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Annie-ProulxPlace is a major part of Annie Proulx’s writing and life. Everything begins with the landscape.

However, as a  feature in The Guardian notes, she is scornful of the adage that you should write what you know. She has said: “All it produces is tiresome middle-class novels of people who I think are writing about things they know, but you wish to God they didn’t”.

Proulx is a late learner and was a thrice divorced 53 year-old woman when she wrote her first collection of short stories (Heart Songs). Five years later came her Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Shipping News. The film version of her short story Brokeback Mountain introduced her to an even wider audience.

My collection of Annie Proulx's books.

My collection of Annie Proulx’s books.

I am a big fan of her fiction and have made a point of buying any book of hers I see but this one turned out to be a big disappointment.

It is the account of an ambitious but ultimately misguided building project. The profits from her belated literary success was ploughed into what he hoped would be her dream home built on wild prairie land near a dramatic cliff in 640 acres of Wyoming, the least populous of the United States.

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House with cliff. The Bird Cloud location.

Proulx envisages the property she named Bird Cloud as “a kind of poem” but it ends as more of a curse. The two years of construction are fraught with difficulties from the outset despite the expertise of architect Harry Teague and a conscientious family building firm she dubs the James Gang.

One of the biggest problems is that the access road is not passable in severe weather (of which there is a lot). Despite assurances by the estate agent that snow was cleared by the local authorities, this proves not to be the case. This is no minor hardship because in this region snowfall is frequent and heavy. According to a local joke “the snow does not melt, it just wears out”.

Proulx proves a hard task master and doesn’t come across as being very likeable. She admits to, and demonstrates, a series of character flaws: “bossy, impatient, reclusively shy, short-tempered, single-minded”. The compassionate nature that is such a feature in her novels and short stories is less evident.

The final chapters of Bird Cloud are the most tedious. They focus on the history of the region and include detailed descriptions of nature and bird life. This content may be interesting to Wyomingites and ornithologists but this general reader found himself skipping rapidly to the end.

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This does look nice! Annie Proulx’s library at Bird Cloud

I think this would have worked better as a coffee table book with lavish illustrations and photos of the house and landscape. Either that, or it could have been turned into an interactive e-book.

Instead the reader has to form mental pictures based on Proulx’s descriptions or surf the net for images of the multi-coloured kitchen units, the ‘perfect’ blue floor tiles, the Japanese-style bath tub and the fifty-six bookcases of her library.

The moral of this tale is that wilderness terrain is better suited to a work of fiction than a location for a dream home.

Give me my cosy urban setting any day.

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