Bird Life by Anna Smaill: A beautiful novel of madness and grief

Cover image for Bird Life by Anna Smail I remember choosing not to read New Zealand writer Anna Smaill’s Man Booker longlisted debut The Chimes thinking it sounded a little too fantastical for me, although I may well overcome that objection having read her new novel, Bird Life. Set in Tokyo, it’s the story of two women, both suffering terrible loss, each seeing the other as a way to heal her wounds.

Something in Yasuko’s presence like a necklace of protection. Her grief resting lighter when they were together; the outside world moving past without a whisper.

Dinah has taken a job as a native English teacher in a technical university where Yasuko also teaches, fleeing a terrible grief for which she feels responsible. Already isolated, she’s living in an apparently deserted apartment block far from her colleagues with whom she feels out of step. Sensing her misery, Yasuko draws Dinah into her orbit, convinced the young woman will help her find her son who has suddenly left home. Yasuko’s carefully polished beauty and exquisite grooming hide an inner turmoil. Since childhood, she’s been bedevilled by manic episodes, episodes that her son has come to dread yet she almost longs for. When the two confide their loss in each other, Dinah becomes determined to track Jun down.

Do you know what it’s like when you’re the person who’s left behind? Do you know? It’s like a light shining down. The brightest light you can imagine. An awful fluorescent light. It’s everywhere. There’s no relief from it. There is no escape.  

Bird Life opens arrestingly with two women in a city park, one a foreigner prostrate on the grass, carefully ignored by passersby, the other striding out perfectly groomed but with one shoe missing. Smaill slips smoothly between these two, unfolding their stories of madness and loss in gorgeous dreamlike prose. Both Dinah and Yasuko are expertly drawn – Yasuko’s glittering vividness attracting Dinah whose own quiet suffering is carefully sealed in. This is a character driven novel with little in the way of plot, yet it gripped me from its striking setup. Grief and madness are difficult themes to explore but Smaill does it with great skill and a lyrical delicacy leaving her readers with much to think about and much to admire.

Scribe Publications: London ‎9781915590039 304 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

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