The Bird’s Child
By Sandra Leigh Price
Out in the UK in August from Harper Collins, but available now through Book Depository, if you can’t wait. Paperback, £12.99
Set in Sydney in 1929, The Bird’s Child is full of magic and menace, birdsong and beguilement. At its heart are three lost souls who converge at the same boarding house. Billy is a veteran of World War I. Badly warped by a precarious childhood and a bad war, he takes his pain out on others — especially the women he beds and abandons.
Ari is a Jewish refugee who lost his mother in a pogrom as a child. He was shipped to Australia into the care of his aunt and his uncle, a rabbi grown inflexible in his beliefs and practises. Uncle Israel is appalled by the forbidden tattoo on the child’s hand. He cannot accept that his nephew wants to become a magician, like Houdini. As far as Israel is concerned, Ari owes it to him to become a rabbi as well.
The third corner of the triangle is Lily, an almost otherworldly presence, all shimmer and light. Ari says, “Her face gleamed as if she had been caught in a photographer’s flash and the glare would not leave her skin.” She is an enigma: we don’t hear from her directly until the second part of the book. Until then, events are recounted in alternating chapters by the two young men.
They could not be more dissimilar, more black and white. Ari embodies innocence and goodness, while Billy’s malevolence is one of the most vivid elements of the novel — at times claustrophobically so. His evil deeds and their motivations made for engrossing reading but also made my skin crawl.
Like Ari, Lily is entranced by magic and has a flair for performance. She is also a bird charmer, with a natural affinity for all things avian. They soon have a little flock nesting in the outbuilding behind the rooming house — a lyrebird, a raven, a rescued parrot and a tuneful currawong — who become not so silent partners in the magic act the young couple rehearses to put on at the local theatre.
Price’s writing is dreamy and lush, filled with sensual detail and symbolism. Though the lyrebird gets its name from the shape of its features, it’s trick is to mimic any song or voice, making it a liar bird as well. It’s a perfect bit of doubling for a book filled with deliberate and accidental deceits. Every character has a secret or two up their sleeve — whether they know it or not. Will all be revealed? Well, I won’t give anything away.
Equally intriguing — and vital to the action — is the wealth of Jewish lore that Price weaves into her tale. I didn’t know that the incantation “Abracadabra” comes from the Hebrew and means “‘the blessing’ ha-brachah, from ‘the curse’ dabra.” That’s why Ari’s doomed mother, a scholar, drove the word into his skin with a stylus, not because she dreamed he’d become a conjurer, but to keep him safe with the particular magic she understood, the mystical aspects of Judaism.
One of the most poignant subplots involves one of the most unsympathetic characters, Israel, whose dogmatic adherence to religious doctrine leads him to treat Ari cruelly. It’s his way or the highway, and for a second time, Ari loses his home. But in the confines of his private study Israel is fighting a losing battle with shattering grief. The God he loves and respects is also cruel and ruthless, allowing His chosen people to be persecuted and destroyed — among them Israel’s beloved sister, Ari’s late mother.
Another intriguing motif is the story of Houdini and his wife Bess. Lily and Ari are alert to her contributions as a kind of magician in her own right, for they share a fascination with this pair and strive to emulate them. Initially, at least, these are the parental figures, the role models, rather than their parents or other family members.
The Bird’s Child is an immersive, engulfing experience. It’s filled with recurring images, especially images of light. People — especially Lily — shimmer, are pale, pearly, lustrous, silvery and milky. Sensual details abound. Satin underwear is “like trailing my hand in cool water.” The lyrebird’s tail rises like “a huge feathered gossamer web.” Price’s love of language, infusing every sentence, will captivate everyone equally enamoured with words.
If I have a criticism it’s that I’d have liked more Lily. Why do birds suddenly appear every time she’s near? Why are people instantly taken with her? Though Price makes it clear that she’s extremely beautiful and radiates goodness, I felt I didn’t understand her as well as I’d have liked to. I wanted a bit more rationale for the love Ari, Billy, and the birds feel for her. That may be unreasonable. Perhaps beauty and kindness are sufficient and I’m being grumpy.
Once picked up, this is a tough book to put down. Billy and his menacing ways make it as pacy as the most suspenseful thriller. Ari, Lily and the supporting characters work real magic to make this a compelling read. My guess is that The Bird’s Child is likely to appeal to anyone who loved Dara Horn’s The World To Come, or Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers. (Other comparisons are available, but those spring immediately to mind.)
Get hold of this when it’s out in August — if not before!