When we last met Edward Gorey at Christmas he was recounting the season’s Twelve Terrors with John Updike. The bright lights and gaiety of the season aren’t perhaps the natural territory for the master of the macabre, so I was intrigued to come across this colourful looking addition to the Christmas canon.
The Christmas Bower was written by Polly Redford, who according to her bio went to high-school with Gorey in Chicago (now there’s a subject for a YA novel if ever I heard one). The pair agreed to one day collaborate on a book. And here it is, a story which confounds expectations from the off.
Let’s start with the cover, which is positively gaudy by Gorey’s usually monochrome standards. Here we have a riot of festive colour created by a flock of escaped exotic birds gone wild in a New York Department store at Christmastime.
Inside Gorey is in more typically sombre mode. This is the work of a devout contrarian, for despite the magnificent setting of a Macy’s like department store, famous for its OTT decorations, Gorey opts to ignore the baubles and concentrate almost entirely on the birds.
Birds are Redford’s main focus of interest too. Having fled Chicago for Florida, she is fascinated by that region’s tropical wildlife, and goes to town on the ornithological descriptions.
The story comes to focus on one pair of drab looking birds who bring colour to the season in a rawther different way. As we discover the male orange-crested gardener bird courts his mate by building a spectacular playhouse, or bower, made in this case from stolen costume jewellery and glitter.
There’s a good dose of seasonal bad-will to be enjoyed here too, as our bird mad young hero comes into conflict with the forces of corporate greed.
In a particularly bad tempered clash, Noah and his uncle Willie come up against the brick wall of commercial logic which demands the birds be gassed before any more damage can befall the store.
The day is saved, with a little help from the eccentric but distinguished members of the bird watching club of New York and their distinctly unique methods of bird catching.
Like that other upper class New York favourite Eloise, the story takes place within a great American establishment during the mid 20th century. It adds instant glamour, but the story that unfolds is a subtle attack on the commercialisation of the season.
The Christmas Bower manages to be both challenging and heartwarming, a book that is something of a lost Christmas classic.