Review of Anna Smaill’s Bird Life: The Intersection of Trauma and Talent
Nna Smaill’s second novel delves into the complexities of grief, friendship, and genius through the lens of four characters. Two are portrayed as ordinary while the other two are deemed extraordinary. Following the death of her twin brother, Michael, Dinah relocates from New Zealand to Japan to teach English. Michael possessed exceptional musical abilities, mastering the piano at the age of 10 and displaying a maturity beyond his years. He once explained to Dinah that “The Magic Flute” is the best because it lacks tragedy, unlike life which can be cruel and unforgiving. Dinah had not seen her brother for a year before his suicide, and she now struggles with feelings of guilt and displacement in her new environment. Everything seems slightly off-kilter for Dinah, as if the world has lost its balance.
Dinah befriends Yasuko, an older colleague from the university. Comparing her to Michael, Yasuko is described as being “too subtle, too perfect”. The book does not shy away from expressing its admiration for Yasuko’s fashionable attire and her collection of live beetles. In one scene, Yasuko impresses a pet shop owner with her knowledge of Japanese translations of Cervantes. In another, she stands up to a rude homeless man on the train and throws money onto the platform for him to pick up. For Dinah, Yasuko’s presence is like a protective necklace, and she sees in Yasuko the same feelings of emptiness and panic that she experiences.
Smaill’s first novel, The Chimes, longlisted for the Booker prize, was a high-concept dystopian fiction, set in a radically alternative London. As Michael begins speaking to his sister from beyond the grave, Bird Life invites a more psychological reading of its speculative elements. Michael’s presence is a way of exploring Dinah’s grief. Yasuko has “powers”, which first appeared around adolescence, when a cat called her a “slattern”. Shortly afterwards, she was warned by a mouse that her mother would die. When the premonition came true, her scientist father locked her in her room for an entire year, during which time Yasuko refused to eat. The novel doesn’t dwell on the logistics of this episode, but does insist that it makes the character exceptional: “No one is tested beyond what they can bear, but Yasuko Kinoshita had been.”
After her 21-year-old son Jun goes missing, she discovers that her special abilities have returned. This may be due to the past trauma that has resurfaced because of the situation. In the park, she communicates with the fish and is approached by a peacock who, without speaking, expresses sympathy for her suffering. Other birds also offer subtle hints, leading the reader to believe that the story may turn into a detective novel involving non-human witnesses who help solve the mystery of Jun’s disappearance. However, the birds eventually fade into the background, adding occasional poetic descriptions to the prose.
Yasuko’s abilities increase in strength as she directs a group of stray cats to seek retribution against the male bikers who were cat-calling. However, the description of the cats as thickening and merging together like crystals in a test tube and forming a sea of mange and lost dignity does not add clarity to the already uncomfortable situation.
These cats might have run straight out of the world of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese film-makers with a genius for emotionally resonant fantasy world-building. Bird Life sets out to harness a playful ambiguity about exactly what’s going on as a way to explore links between trauma and insight, extreme talent and mental breakdown. Towards the end of the novel, there is an abrupt change of tack, as speaking animals give way to lyrical descriptions of sex and violence. The characters’ tragedies feel mannered and evasive. The lasting impression is not of Yasuko’s powers and Michael’s brilliance, but of a different kind of performance. When the peacock closes the “life-occluding shutter of its lid”, or cute facts about Brahms and frogs appear in Michael’s mouth, the characters are obscured by the intrusive hand of the author.