Winner, American Book Fest 2019 Best Book Awards
Finalist, American Book Fest 2019 Best Book Awards
Kate, a somewhat clumsy widow of thirty-two, flees her stifling hometown on Vancouver Island to live alone on an even smaller island in the Salish Sea. In so doing, she has vague expectations of solace and sanctuary, despite past experience. Instead she meets Ivy, a woman who through their conversations transports her to the intoxicating world of 1926 Cuba. Within the context of their friendship, Ivy’s past begins to unravel from a long-held silence, just as Kate finds herself confronting her relationship with the colourful community she’s known all her life, along with an unexpected visitor who threatens to remove all peace from her chosen refuge. Told from the perspectives of three narrators: Ivy, Kate, and Kate’s mother Nora, Fishing for Birds is a novel that juxtaposes the expectations we cling to so fiercely and the unexpected and sometimes unconventional things that turn up. The novel challenges traditional constructs of time, ethnicity, and relationship. Set against the tropical beauty of 1920s Cuba and the Northwest Coast of contemporary time, both the landscape and unique character of island life underscore the experiences of three very different women.
“Sharp, visceral, storytelling from Linda Quennec, a confident new voice in Canadian novel-writing.”
—Sarah Sheard, author of Krank, Almost Japanese, and other novels
It’s an opportunity. She can’t stay in tonight; the world will surely turn on its side without her there to breathe the perfumed night. Three months of hanging around her grandparents’ place. While she feels a mild stab of guilt for misleading them, she’s restless and knows that there will never be another opportunity like this once she’s left the island. She’d have no chance at any sort of freedom if her parents were here. She silently thanks the brilliant gods who’ve stocked the Cuban waters so abundantly with tuna—the blessed silvery shoals thickening the emerald waters, imparting the need to stay late at her shift. She feels an almost religious “thanks be to God” rise up in her head—a result of too many weeks of church. An avid fisherman, Señor Canton requires all of his staff on the lines so that he can take advantage of this prime season. All Ivy had to do was exaggerate her working hours when disclosing them to her grandparents.
A few curls pop out of alignment, but she licks her fingers and slicks them back against her temples, adding a headband with a large gardenia. She’s brought extra beads from back home and strings them around her neck. A dab of Oma’s long-neglected Chanel and she is ready. She’d said her goodbyes at the office before sneaking into a washroom to prepare. No one need notice the effort.
The night welcomes her, sultry and full of energy; it’s impatient she’s taken so long. The rising, syncopated buzz of cicadas has long given way to the kindling intoxication of a clear, tropical night. How could anyone stay inside? By this time back home, a humid chill would be penetrating every pore, cloistering everyone in their houses for months and months. Even summer nights would be chilly.
Ivy hastens toward her bicycle, her steps taking a little longer in the white dress, clingy at the bodice and flared at the hips. Will Emilio be there? She wouldn’t be honest if she didn’t admit that much of the effort had been made with him in mind. She checks for the observant eyes of her colleagues, hikes up her dress, and flings her leg over the seat. Pedalling, she pushes through the warm, thick air and into the trees—jungle, her parents would call it, making it sound so primitive.
Twenty minutes later she finds the narrow trail, altered by darkness, but discernible still. Night creatures, whatever they are, are deafening and obnoxious—she remembers a friend saying once that North Americans are calmer and more conservative because their forests are quiet, while people with Latin blood reflect in their spirit the warm cacophony of the tropical rainforest. A generalization, but it seems true tonight. Even the tiniest of creatures celebrate.
It takes fifteen more minutes to get to the clearing. The swimming hole at its centre looks as though it has stolen the moon and hidden it there, grasping and pulling it down into a viney embrace. Everyone Ivy knows is there, along with several people she’s not yet met. A layer of sweet cigar smoke hovers over the moon-filled lake, and everything pulses and teems with creatures—human and other.
Peter Freisen offers her a cigarette and a light. The excitement is palpable—rebellious friends joining together after having made it past the gauntlet of parental obstacle. Someone is playing drums.
“Oy, Rubia. Come dance.”
Her heart leaps, looking for Emilio, but instead it’s a spindly Dutch boy, a friend of Peter’s. Down by the water, he bounces and shakes in a group of sweaty bodies. Ivy joins them, closing her eyes and feeling her own body sway with delight, as though she’s shaking off ten coils of heavy rope. Mark and Maureen are there, as are the German twins from up the street, and a lot more Americans. She moves as sensuously as she knows how, in hopes of becoming magnetizing. Her eyes closed, imagining Emilio. Three songs later there is still no sign. She chides herself, knowing that it would not be likely for any Cubans to turn up at this sort of event. She decides to socialize, heading back toward Peter and a few of his friends as they squat with drinks a few yards up the bank. Peter pours a glass of pungent rum and offers it to her.
“You enjoy your time here, Rubia? He spreads a blanket for them all to settle on.
“In the wrong places, I think.” The two men and women laugh.
A girl Ivy hasn’t met before with an equine face and short, black bangs gives a throaty, cigarette-infused chuckle.
“It takes a while to find a party in the middle of the jungle.”
Ivy sips her rum and looks out at the lake. No local would ever dream of doing this. There is some kind of distancing from oneself that comes solely with the expat experience, as if this isn’t really happening. None of them are really here in totality. Just parts of themselves, living a parallel existence.
The last glug of fiery rum pulses through her veins, while the group on the blanket descends into a mellow, philosophical mood. She reaches her arms up, stretching, then makes her way back to the haze and rising pulse of the dancers. Drums continue to punctuate the stillness and humidity.
She’d almost given up hope of seeing Emilio when over on the far side of the lake she sees him. Ivy watches as he winds around the path. Who does he know here? Not in the least bit tentative, he strides across the flattened grasses and finds Ivy with his eyes. She continues to dance, allowing him to come closer to her. His wavy brown hair looks a little messy, and she notices for the first time that his dark eyes have the webbed beginnings of laugh lines radiating outward. She’s never asked his age, still doesn’t really know him.
“Do you like to dance?”
They make their way into the crowd, and Emilio pulls Ivy tightly against his chest, closer to him than she’s ever been to any man, subtracting all remaining space between them.
His dance is unfamiliar, more insistent and directive than she’s used to. He smells of soap, and she begins to feel webbed within a sort of net, like a sticky spider’s web, although she’s not sure who the spider is. It’s getting crowded, and most people are up and dancing now, trampling the grasses further into submission. Emilio is tall, but she’s able to stretch her arms up around his shoulders and join his rhythm. Before long he has her hips and is gently moving them with his large hands.
“This is how to dance if you go to Havana.”
Ivy laughs at his line, but the lesson continues and she is an attentive, if not slightly drunken, participant. Drumbeats melt into one another until Ivy and Emilio become a single swaying branch, hips fused, bodies liquefying.
“I’d like to go to Havana.” She looks up at him.
He responds by taking her hand and pulling her away from the others, heading toward the thickness of trees.
She stops, pulls him back. “What are you doing?”
He takes off his shirt and wraps it around her shoulders. His answer is a smile. She’s intrigued enough to follow.