The gaiety of Christmas isn’t natural territory for the master of the macabre. When we last met Edward Gorey he was recounting the season’s Twelve Terrors with John Updike. The Christmas Bower is a collaboration with writer Polly Redford, Gorey’s high-school friend from Chicago. As teenagers the pair agreed to one day make a book together and in 1967 they did, with a story which confounds expectations from the off.
The cover is positively gaudy by Gorey’s usually monochrome standards. He gives us a riot of festive colour on a fabulous Christmas tree and a flock of escaped exotic birds gone wild in a New York Department store.
Inside Gorey is in more typically sombre mode. Despite the magnificent setting of a Macy’s like department store, famous for its overt the top decorations, Gorey largely ignores the baubles and concentrate instead on the birds, rendered with what his biographer Mark Dery describes as ‘painstaking ornithological exactitude’.
Birds are Redford’s main interest too. After leaving Chicago for Coconut Grove, Florida, she became fascinated by the region’s tropical wildlife, which she exports to a wintry New York city, including a pair of orange-crested gardener birds. The male of the species courts his mate by building a spectacular playhouse, or bower, made out of stolen costume jewellery and glitter from the department store.
There’s a good dose of seasonal bad will to be enjoyed here too, as the bird mad young hero, Noah comes into conflict with the forces of corporate greed and fights to save the birds.
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 gentle attack on the commercialisation of the season. The Christmas Bower manages to be simultaneously challenging and heartwarming, and is something of a lost Christmas classic.
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