In my continuing effort to read more, often lesser-known books by authors I love, I read Shirley Jackson’s 1954 novel, The Bird’s Nest earlier this month. It’s not bad, but I think it’s the weakest of the Jackson novels I’ve read. I can see why it’s not talked about that much.
The book tells the story of Elizabeth Richmond, a rather bland young woman who lives with her aunt and does administrative work in a museum. She gets backaches and headaches and sometimes finds herself in situations she doesn’t understand. For instance, she finds handwritten letters written to her, filled with insults and threats, and she has no idea where they come from. Concerned about some of Elizabeth’s odd behavior, her Aunt Morgan insists she see a psychiatrist, who uncovers that she has multiple personalities, and one of these personalities is the source of the notes and of Elizabeth’s strange behavior.
The story is told from the perspective of Elizabeth, her doctor, Betsy (her most childish and mischievous personality), and her aunt. Each of these narrators is bewildered about what is happening, in one way or another, but as each voice takes over, the readers gets more of a sense of what is happening. I especially liked seeing the contentious relationship between Dr. Wright and Betsy develop into a sort of begrudging partnership, as they grow to understand each other’s motives. And the sense of menace whenever Elizabeth/Betsy/Lizzie/Bess etc. ends up in a new situation kept my interest the whole time.
I’ve now read all of Jackson’s novels, except her first, The Road through the Wall. And despite the dark strangeness of the book’s premise, The Bird’s Nest feels kind of bland in comparison to the others. It doesn’t lean as hard into its own weirdness as Jackson’s other novels. It tells the story well, and the story is an interesting one, but it doesn’t take the extra step to really blow my mind.