The Bird’s Child: A Review

The Bird’s Child

Sandra Leigh Price

From the back cover…

A novel of magic, birds, lost letters and love.

9781460750001Sydney, 1929: three people find themselves washed up on the steps of Miss Du Maurier’s bohemian boarding house in a once grand terrace in Newtown. Ari is a young Jewish man, a pogrom orphan, who lives under the stern rule of his rabbi uncle, but dreams his father is Houdini. Upon his hand he bears a forbidden mark – a tattoo – and has a secret ambition to be a magician. Finding an injured parrot one day on the street, Ari is unsure of how to care for it, until he meets young runaway Lily, a glimmering girl after his own abracadabra heart. together they form a magical act, but their lives take a strange twist when wild card Billy, a charming and dangerous drifter twisted by the war, can no longer harbour secret desires of his own.

The Bird’s Child is a feat of sleight-of-hand. Birds speak, keys appear from nowhere, boxes spill secrets and the dead talk. this is a magical, stunningly original, irresistible novel – both an achingly beautiful love story and a slowly unfurling mystery of belonging.

If you read last week’s review, you’ll understand I was at first a little wary at the promise of such lyrical sounding ‘magic’ in Sandra Leigh Price’s debut novel The Bird’s Child. I needn’t have worried. Price’s book is cleverly constructed, the characters made me feel something about them (and those feelings weren’t always empathy), and the magic in it is many layered and based in the real world. It is the magic of belief and connection; of deflection and sleight-of-hand; of love, faith and belonging.

The book is divided into three parts, named after the stages of a particular magic trick that features in the story: In Full View, The Switch and The Metamorphosis. It revolves around three characters, who alternate in narrating the story. Sometimes they are reliable narrators; sometimes we catch them out, and the truth is eked out somewhere between their three viewpoints. Price lets one contradict another, and then reflects more light into the story with each shift in perspective.

Billy is the first character we meet: a deceiving (and self-deceiving) drifter. We’ve all known people like him; not evil as such, but self obsessed and obstinate in the belief that the world owes them a favour. Women are a prize to be won, and Billy is adamant that he deserves first prize. (He’d be an internet troll nowadays. Just don’t get him started on Gamergate.) He is the most obviously unreliable of the three narrators and, despite wheedling small moments of empathy out of us, the reader, his psychopathic tendencies aren’t far from the surface. You’ll find yourself anticipating his comeuppance with glee.

Ari is caught between the confines of family and religion, and his own desires. A pogrom orphan, his mother is lost to him and his father was always a mystery. He carries a forbidden tattoo, which marks him apart from his Jewish heritage and sets him on his own course.

Lily begins as a something of cipher. She is the unobtainable ‘glimmering girl’ viewed in awe and at a distance by both Billy and Ari as they alternately narrate their way through the first third of the book. In this way we are distanced from her too, seeing her only through the growing obsession of the two male narrators. In Part 2, The Shift, we first move to her point of view, and then the story is shared between the three narrators for the rest of the book. It’s cleverly done. She begins as hardly more than a shimmer of light, emerges and appears far more delicate that birds she befriends, and finally, thankfully, rises phoenix-like as she finds her place in the world.

All three characters live as much in the past as the present, and Price deftly weaves the threads of their history into the novel’s present. There are several motifs that are bound into the story; birds are the strongest, but also amulets, poetry (in the form of song, prayer, the mutterings of the mad) and of course magic. Each character has his own relation to each of these. Keeping all those threads from tangling is no mean feat, and Price does it well.

If I have any quibbles, they are minor. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Miss De Maurier, as she and her boarding house are what bind the three protagonists. I felt she had her own story to tell, even if this book wasn’t the place for it. I was curious about the magic tricks and preparation for the stage too, and would have loved to have seen more, but as they say, a magician never reveals their secret. As I said, these quibbles are minor.

The Bird’s Child is marketed as a lyrical thing, all sparkle and glamour, but don’t be fooled by its stage magic. Look deeper, and it delves into belief, delusion and madness. Price balances lyricism with darkness, sparkle with grit, and skilfully keeps the scales from tipping too far either way. She has created a deft and gleaming debut novel.

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I’m thrilled that Sandra has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the book. I can’t wait to read what she does next. For now, here she is talking about The Bird’s Child

I loved the structure of the book, particularly the three parts, just like a magic trick. Did you plot extensively before starting, or did it fall together as you wrote?

Thank you – I’m glad you liked the three parts to the magic trick – it was in the back of my mind trying to make the whole book have the feel and wonder of the reveal that happens in a magic trick. Not in a superficial grease paint sort of way, but  that moment when one suspends belief and blinks, before the mind can come in and explain what happens. To me that is the magic. I also had the plot of 19th century novel, Trilby by George Du Maurier, a twisted love story where mesmerism is involved circling in my head. And of course, the initial idea started with Ari’s mysterious tattoo – abracadabra – a word that is really like a Russian doll, it has meanings upon meanings.

As to plotting extensively, I had a basic idea, but I’m very much of the belief that the story has a life of it’s own, if I get crumbs to follow I follow them. Things show up from the subconscious that usually are better than what I stared with. A type of marinating.

The way you’ve used magic in the book is very clever. I was a little wary about the promise of talking birds, appearing keys, etc on the blurb, but it lies deeper than that. Can you talk a little about how threads of magic are woven throughout the book?

Again, thank you! It’s a little bit hard to describe isn’t it – it’s not realism but neither is it magic realism – somewhere in between. Magic in all its guises was something I was really fascinated by, but not in a fantasy/fantastical way, more the way we interact with magic in the day to day.  There is the obvious idea of the stage magician that I explored, but also the idea of folk magic and superstition’s use of amulets and incantations and of course the magic in religion, the parable, the miracle, the prayer and the words made flesh. The power of a lie believed is also a type of magic.

Billy was a character I really loved to hate. Did you find it difficult to write such an unlikable and unreliable narrator? Or was it damn good fun? …Or do you actually have a bit of a soft spot for him?

I’m glad you loved (and hated!) him too – I adored writing Billy, as soon as he opened his mouth (metaphorically) he filled the page with his particular outlook – that larrikin spirit gone wrong really – I think he was the easiest character to write because there are quite a few larrikins my family  (though none as twisted as Billy) and I love the Australian vernacular that is fast disappearing, the tall tale, the truth concealed in extravagant lies.

How does your average writing day look? Or is there such thing as an average writing day?!

My best sort of writing day is daily if I can – in the morning, in a cafe with several muse-loaded cups of coffee with my pen and notebook. I write all my first drafts by hand, which is probably crazy (The Bird’s Child first draft was about 26 skinny Moleskin notebooks long if you were wondering!). I aim to write about 4 – 8 pages and am happy if I do more. Then I usually go home and type up a part of it while trying not to re-read too much, just a little prune. Typing up my handwriting. Not so fun.

Can you tell us what’s next on your horizon?

My next novel is currently in progress. I’m quite superstitious about talking about it, as I sometimes think if I pin it down like a lepidopterist’s butterfly then the ideas and words will be dead on a board! But I can say it involves a strong female voice, the 19th century and outsiders. I’m following those crumbs.
Thank you Sandra. May those crumbs lead to magical places!

Lamp Black, Wolf Grey: A review

I was recently sent a review copy (via Netgalley) of Paula Brackston’s upcoming book Lamp Black, Wolf Grey. Hooray! I love review copies, and this was one I could discuss here on The Bone Lantern. In the end, I nearly didn’t write a review, and I’ll go into why at the tail end of the post.

The book follows Lauren, and her move from London to the Wales countryside in an attempt to inspire new artwork (and somehow also inspire pregnancy); and Megan, nursemaid to the sons of a Medieval lord and love interest to a young Merlin. Their timelines are woven together, binding each other tighter and tighter as the book progresses. It is something of a gothic romance, tying in historical and contemporary fiction, and a bit of horror towards the end. It’s not a challenging read, but it rollicks along well enough to keep you reading for an afternoon.

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The blurb promised to reach through “gossamer-fine veil that separates [our] own world from that of myth and fable”, and I was hoping for a more in depth exploration of the relationship between the two. There is so much current fiction that explores myth and fairy tales, and the way they influence and intrude on our ‘real’ world, that you really need to do amazing things to stand out from the crowd. Using the old ‘it’s magic, and that’s explanation enough’ exposition doesn’t really cut it. Saying that, Paula has blurred the lines cleverly in some places. Two characters at first appear to be one and the same, but diverge: one into legend, the other into human fallibility. Myth bleeds into reality, and she explores the idea of true ‘magic’ against flaws in the human mind.

Lauren, our contemporary heroine, is not the strongest of protagonists and her motivations not always clear, but her emotional arc is well played out. She begins the story as the archetypal childless Queen, setting out on a journey to reverse her infertility. Megan is the stronger of the two, attempting to survive a precarious situation in a time when women of her social standing were at the mercy of nearly everyone around them. Her story is one of survival and bravery, while Lauren mostly ponders her emotional wellbeing, though she does get a taste of proper danger towards the end. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of depth to the characters, particularly the secondary ones. They are kind and good; dark and mysterious; or simply mad, bad and dangerous to know. I want to see flaws in the innocent, and light shining through the cracks of the villainous. Maybe she was using archetypal characters as a reflection of the fairy tale narrative? Maybe I’m being kind.

The writing clunks a little here and there, but overall the narrative is well structured. The two storylines are tied together skilfully, with thematic and emotional threads binding them at key points in the story. Look, to be honest, I wanted to love this book, and in the end… I enjoyed it well enough. I kept reading, despite my frustrations with it. Maybe I came to the book with conflicting expectations, but now the question is, do I hit ‘publish’ on a ho hum review? Reviews that worship a book are interesting, ones that gleefully despise it even more so! But several paragraphs to say “well, it was ok…”?

If you’ve made it this far, one thing I can do for you is recommend some brilliant writing on a similar theme:

For those who want clever and powerful historical fiction involving fairy tales, read Kate Forsyth, particularly Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl, and her upcoming The Beast’s Garden. Also read Neil Gaiman, in particular his beautiful novellas (novellettes? They are short stories really, beautifully illustrated) The Sleeper and the Spindle and Hansel and Gretel. And of course the all great and powerful A. S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie…

Tell me, what else should I read? Do you have a contemporary book that involves myth and fairy tales, and blows you away with its creative power, dexterity and un-put-downable-ness? I want to read it too.

The Stolen Child

The Scottish Story of The Stolen Bairn and the Sídh is one very close to my heart, so this poem by W. B Yeats touches deep. It promises immense joy, yet is threaded with such darkness.
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The Stolen Child
There dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island,
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries,
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than
you can understand.
 .
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Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances,
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than
you can understand.
.
Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout,
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than
you can understand.
 .
Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside;
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than
he can understand.
 .
W. B. Yeats.

“Ever After” at The Art Vault

Well, I’ve been somewhat off the radar over the past few months. In that time I’ve finished off a couple of big jobs, made it through Christmas and the 6 week long school holiday (including a glorious week in Tasmania), and got two exhibitions up.

Most recently, I made the five hour drive to Mildura to install an exhibition of my work at The Art Vault, a fabulous gallery who are incredibly dedicated to their artists. I’ve been lucky enough to be on their books for several years, and was thrilled to be invited to exhibit in their main gallery as part of the 2015 Mildura Wentworth Arts Festival.

I left home in the dark early hours of last Tuesday morning, driving until the sun joined me, then driving, and driving, until it was nearly overhead. The welcome at gallery was as warm as that Mildura sun. I unpacked my work and was swept a couple doors down for lunch with Julie, The Art Vault’s passionate and indomitable director. We talked art and politics and returned to find the works all up on the wall! Andrew (seen in the lower left corner below) is some sort of spirit-level-eyed wunderkind.

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As penance for disappearing during the important work, I helped Andrew hang the exhibition in their middle gallery: beautiful and haunting photographs by Sophia Szilagy. After conferring with Mia, Sonja and Anne at the front desk (all gorgeous women and blindingly talented artists themselves) about price lists, etc, there was nothing for it but to entertain myself until the opening on Wednesday night. I wandered the streets of Mildura, ducking between air conditioned shops, the Mildura Art Gallery and back intermittently to my apartment at The Art Vault. Not surprisingly, a highlight was The Cellar Door, which has free tastings of the regions varied and very reasonably priced wines. I bought two. On for me, and one to take home.

I also got a few documentation shots of the exhibition before the opening on Wednesday:

The opening itself was a delightful blur. It began with a chat with Danielle Hobbs: Artist, Photographer and La Trobe University Visual Arts Lecturer, who later opened the exhibition with insight and grace; and continued with two media interviews (with ABC radio and Sunraysia Daily Newspaper) as people wandered in. I finally managed to hunt down a glass of wine, most of which I spilled while gesticulating in conversation to various very nice people over the evening.

Thanks to Laura Donges from Sunraysia Daily for the photo below. You can read the first part of the article here. See the iron grip on that glass? Didn’t stop me from sloshing it over myself and the floor.

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Eventually the crowd thinned out, and again I was whisked away, this time for dinner at The Mildura Brewery. Ten of us sat round the long table, thanks to the very generous invitation of Julie and her husband Kevin. Danielle and I bonded further over motherhood, fairy tales and home brewing tales, which seemed most appropriate under the watchful presence of the huge beer vats at the back of the restaurant, and we parted ways with my promise to make a batch of chilli cider and send some up to her. Stefano De Pieri doesn’t hold back with good food and wine, and we just managed to roll back to our various accommodations.

I made the long straight drive back the next morning, still buzzing with the incredibly warm and generous welcome from all I met, in particularly Julie, Mia, Sojna, Anne, Andrew and Robert at The Art Vault. I arrived home to warm cake and hugs, happy to be back in the arms of family, and the ‘cold’ climate of Castlemaine.

It was 35ºC.

Free Fairy Tale listening: Courses, podcasts and talks.

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If you’re like me, the tasks of hanging out clothes, driving, shopping, etc are made bearable through the act of listening – either music, or audiobooks and podcasts. Podcasts are what I listen to most, but I also use iTunes U a lot for their free audio of lectures and talks. I promise not to turn The Bone Lantern into a listicle blog (three in a row – oops) but I would like to make a list of the fairy tale related listening I do, for my own pleasure, and hopefully yours. Lets start with my favourite;

Podcasts.

Disney Story Origins podcast takes a look at the relationship between the Disney movie version of a fairy tale (so far he has covered Frozen, Sleeping Beauty, Mulan and Aladdin) and the lineage of the story behind it. The podcast episodes can seem pretty few and far between, but that’s because he takes a lot of time to research and produce the content. Topics often stretch over several episodes, and it’s always a fascinating look into how stories change over time. Unlike many comparative theorists in the genre, he doesn’t hold up Disney as the evil destroyer of ‘true and pure’ stories; instead he recognises their place in the evolution of fairy tales. A great listen. The feed link above also has an extensive bibliography list for each podcast. See? Good research. You can follow the podcast on Twitter too: @DSOpodcast.

Amy and Sophie discuss fairy tales at Tabled Fables. They aren’t currently releasing new episodes, but there’s a back catalogue of podcasts still available. Each episode looks at a specific fairy tale, and they chat happily about its origins and and significance, often drawing in interviews with experts and other interesting folk. They still post fairy tales snippets on Tumbler, and you can follow them on Twitter: @tabledfables

Not specifically about fairy tales, or currently releasing new episodes, but my children have loved listening to Kara Shallenberg read old stories and tales since they were little. In fact, I went in to say goodnight to my 11 year daughter last night, and she was listening to Kara read In the Nursery of my Book House via Librivox. Kara has volunteered her time for many years, recording books and stories in the public domain, for both adult and children listeners. As well as her podcast, she has a huge library of free audiobooks on Librivox, a wonderful online service that provides many thousands of hours listening. It’s the audio version of Project Gutenberg, and if you haven’t discovered it yet, go now. I’ll wait.

The wonderful Kara also tweets @kayray

Online Courses and Lectures.

Ever felt the urge to go back and take a class, without actually having to turn up to lectures, endure other fidgeting students, and line up for sad sandwiches at the lunch hall? Online courses are the next big thing in education, and a lot of them are free, provided you don’t want the actual piece of paper at the end. There are some many fascinating lectures on everything you could imagine. I’ve subscribed to courses in physics, psychology, creative writing… you name it, but right now I’ll stick to those relevant to fairy tales.

La Trobe University’s History of Children’s Literature and Genres of Children’s Literature are fabulous. Australian lecturer David Beagley discusses many aspects of Children’s Literature in both of these subjects, and he’s lovely to listen to. The history subject comprises 29 individual lectures, many of them covering aspects of fairy tales, myth and folk tales. These are real lectures – you’ll hear students coughing, shuffling and asking questions – it’s just like being in the lecture hall! But on your couch.

Faerie and Fantasy is a complete undergrad semester long class on Fairy Tale and Fantasy by Professor Corey Olsen at Washington College. Focus on weeks 6-9 for specifically fairy tale related topics. He covers Andrew Lang and The Book of Wonder, and several of the better known tales within. Again, real lectures, given to real fidgeting students. Love it. You can follow Corey Olsen @tolkienprof

Introduction to Pre-Modern Japanese Literature and Culture is a series of 27 lectures focussing on, as is obvious from the title, pre-modern Japanese Literature. This includes many old tales, and the cultural context from which they came.

Invitation to World Literature includes lectures on Gilgamesh, The Thousand and One Nights, The Bhagavad Vita. I haven’t listen to this one yet, but I have it bookmarked. It looks like a great overview of some of histories most referred-to texts.

Discussions and Interviews 

Kate Forsyth has been a monthly guest on ABC Radio National‘s Life Matters program, discussing fairy tales with Natasha Mitchell, as part of their ‘Once upon a time: fairy tales reimagined‘ series. See also episodes on Rapunzel and The Little Mermaid. Kate Forsyth tweets @KateForsyth

Listen to an interview with Phillip Pullman about his recent translation of some of Grimms’ Fairy Tales on NPR.

While you’re at NPR, you can also listen to a short piece about Jack Zipes’ translation of the first edition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.  He talks to Weekend Edition’s Rachael Martin.

Well, I hope that gets you through a few loads of washing and a trip to the supermarket at the very least! Happy Listening.

Early Women Writers of Fairy Tales

I wrote recently about women fairy tale illustrators, so now it’s time for some writers. The writers I have listed here are pre-Golden Age, and mostly wrote in France during the 1600s. I’ll write at a later date on Golden Age and contemporary writers, but there are already plenty of writers I’m brushing over here. French writers appear heavily in the canon, as fairy tales were very much in vogue in 17th Century France.

200px-D'AulnoyMarie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy (1650/1651–4 January 1705), AKA the more easily pronouncable Countess d’Aulnoy, was the first writer to define the term ‘fairy tales’ or rather, ‘contes de fées’. Many of her works were of a style that we define as the classical fairy tale – whimsical and tied up neatly at the end with a marriage or proper morals. They were also very French (oddly enough), and very linked to her aristocratic background, with titles like The Bee and the Orange Tree, Princess Belle-Etoille and The White Doe. She held a salon in Paris, and was linked to a good numbers of rumours and scandals involving adultery, treason and espionage. I like her very much.

220px-Liselotte_von_der_pfalzCharlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force (1654–1724) seems to the just the kind of woman you want at your party. No stranger to scandals (do you see a pattern forming here?), she was a maid of honour at the court of Louis XIV, until he banished her to a convent for writing ‘satirical verses’ and being embroiled in various mischiefs and a rumoured affair. It is here that she wrote many contes de fées, including her most famous story ‘Persinete’, based on an older Neapolitan story, and later rewritten as ‘Rapunzel’ by the Brothers Grimm.

Author Kate Forsyth’s wonderful book Bitter Greens is based on the time Charlotte-Rose spent in the convent. It’s a brilliant read. Kate has also written about Charlotte-Rose on her blog.

2855b2b50fd3152c15ce6e3b08231c46Henriette-Julie de Murat (1670-1716), not pictured. More controversy! What a surprise! In addition to fairy tales, Henriette wrote some scandalous faux memoirs, which had her exiled to the French provincial town of Loches for several years. She also wrote in France in the late 17th Century, and some of the fairy tales attributed to her are Bearskin and Starlight.

Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon (1664-1734) was a refreshingly scandal free writer of fairy tales, and niece of the more famous fairy tale writer Charles Perrault, though she published her first tale a year before he did. She was a protégé of Madeleine de Scudéry, and inherited Madeleine’s salon after her death.

Like the three aforementioned writers, she was instrumental in the enormous popularity of fairy tales in 17th Century France.

Jeanne-Marie_Leprince_de_BeaumontJeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780) wrote the best known version of Beauty and the Beast, though the earliest known version was written by fellow French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Marie’s childhood was beset by poverty and the death of her mother at the age of 11, though she claims not to have mourned her. Those looking for more scandal will find it this time in her first husband. He spent her large dowry on his debts, then bought a hotel with the rest. He used the hotel as one would expect of an unwelcome patron, by throwing wild parties and inviting all sorts of disreputable characters. Consequently he contracted a disease typical of such a lifestyle, and Jeanne-Marie was able to obtain an annulment. Not long after, she moved to London, where she wrote her many fairy tales, remarried and had a large family. Her works were very moralistic, more so than many of her scandalous French counterparts, and she also wrote schoolbooks and other moral stories and poems.

Wild-349While not technically a known fairy tale writer, it would be remiss of me not to mention Dortchen Wild. She was a neighbour of the Grimm brothers in Cassel, Germany in the early 19th Century. They met in 1805, when she was 12. Napoleon invaded Cassel in 1806, and this is the same year that the brothers began collecting fairy tales. Dortchen struck up a friendship with the brothers, much to the disapproval of her autocratic father. They met in secret, and Dortchen told the brothers many of the fairy tales included in their collection. Dortchen had several siblings, but all eventually moved away, leaving her to care for her ailing parents. She and Wilhem Grimm had fallen in love, but could not marry, even after her father’s death. The brothers were destitute, and it was only many years later, after the overthrow of Napoleon, and the eventual success of the Grimms’ stories, that they were finally able to marry. Dortchen and the Grimm brothers lived together for the rest of their lives.

Kate Forsyth has also written about the life of Dortchen Wild in The Wild Girl, in fact it is she who introduced me to her. Read more about Kate’s exploration of Dortchen’s life here.