The Bird’s Child
Sandra Leigh Price
From the back cover…
A novel of magic, birds, lost letters and love.
Sydney, 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.
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!