SANDRA LEIGH PRICE The Bird’s Child. Reviewed by Lou Murphy
An unusual and imaginative novel, The Bird’s Child traverses surreal territory in a historical setting.
The unlikely bringing together of the stories of a pogrom orphan, an albino runaway and a charming drifter cruelly scarred by war creates in The Bird’s Child a magical tapestry of love, mystery, obsession and belonging.
Sandra Leigh Price uses multiple first-person narratives to weave her gritty – yet enchanting– story, set in Sydney in 1929 and shifting among the three different points of view of Ari, Lily, and Billy. Their lives intertwine in the Newtown boarding house of Miss du Maurier, a war widow who fills the void left by her husband’s death by taking in strangers to live in her home.
Often deliciously sumptuous and erotically charged, memories swerve the flow of time to influence the unfolding of the story. Ensconced in the boarding house, the war-damaged Billy remembers his first love:
… If my father’s drug was opium, mine was surely to be skin. The texture of Golden Fortune’s skin surprised me: the most supple silk draped upon her bones, her hip and collarbone ivory points pressing against it. I looked at all the opium sleepers, some eyelids leaden to the world, some fluttering like poppy petals in a breeze. When my hand touched her, her eyes widened. I could have done anything, but all I wanted was to touch every inch of her golden skin …
Thus the author awakens the reader to the sensual possibilities of each moment. Each of the three stories is gradually revealed in this way, the relevance of the past weighing heavily on the behaviour of the characters. There is Ari, a Jewish man who as a boy fled the pogroms in Russia to live with his strict Uncle Israel (a rabbi) and his Aunt Hephzibah. Secretly he dreams of becoming a successor to Houdini. A tattoo is imprinted on his hand with the word ‘abracadabra’, a mysterious childhood relic that only strengthens this ambition. When he takes a wounded bird into his care he forges an unlikely friendship with Lily, who reveals an avian affinity. Birds play a huge role in the novel, both literally and as metaphor. One of the many wondrous characters scattered like birdseed throughout the novel is that of the ‘Birdman,’ whom Ari persuades to entrust a raven to his care:
… The raven hopped from his shoulder and hovered in the air for a moment before I felt its claws sink into my shoulder. The magnificence of that sudden grip overwhelmed me.
‘She likes you. Ravens don’t go to just anyone.’
‘How can you tell a crow from a raven?’
‘Crow and raven – cut of the same jet feather.’
The moon was low on the horizon and my uncle would be wondering where I was, but I had no intention of running as if a riot were behind me now. Lily would be waiting, that I knew. My uncle, he could wait some more. And those jet-black raven’s feathers were soft like the running of water against my skin …
Balancing the accounts of the two men is the story of Lily, whose life comes into focus in Part Two. Here we encounter her version of events, told with a plaintive honesty at once heartbreaking and fascinating:
… I suppressed my desire to run. As I got to the top of the stairs, I wiped my mouth, trying to erase the pressure of Billy’s kiss, my hand wiping back and forth again and again.
The raven blinked at me as I opened my bedroom door, as if she had been expecting me. How could I have so nearly forgotten about her? I chucked my fingers under her chin as one does a cat; a low grizzle of pleasure came from her throat. I was glad of her wordless company …
Birds form the basis of the magic act that Ari and Lily consequently create with a menagerie of winged beasts. Price captures the strange carnival ambience of their shows with impeccable detail, not shying away from the raw, grass-roots nature of their performances and of the audience members. However, as Ari and Lily’s professional partnership begins to turn into something more, Billy’s jealousy is invoked. He is already drawn to Lily and it becomes apparent that he will stop at nothing to get what he wants. The fragility of their triangle is thrown into relief.
An unusual and imaginative novel, The Bird’s Child traverses surreal territory while touching on historical facts and diverse ideologies.
Sandra Leigh Price The Bird’s Child Harper Collins 2015 400pp $32.99
Lou Murphy is the author of the crime novel Squealer, available from http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/LouMurphy
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