I heard Sophie Cunningham talk about Bird at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and (although I liked her first novel, Geography) I decided that I wasn’t interested. However, when I saw it at the library, I decided to give it a go…
It began well. There are four narrators: Az (Anna-Sofia) – the young woman in search of an explanation for her mother’s unloving behaviour; Eleanor – her mother’s friend who ends up rearing Az after Anna abandons her to live in a Tibetan monastery; one of the monks, Lama Darje Rinpoche (who speaks in that irritating clipped way that the Dalai Lama does) and finally, Anna (aka ‘Bird’) herself, telling the story of her dreadful childhood during the Siege of Stalingrad. (This part is quite harrowing).
It all works fine, and is indeed very engaging except for the sections narrated by the monk. I suspect that Cunningham got a bit carried away by her own personal interest in Buddhism – his bits are full of soppy Buddhist sentiments and pseudo rationalizations. It does not, for me, explain the character Anna’s strange behaviour, and whereas the other voices are convincing and absorbing, the Lama’s was irritating. Well, maybe you need to more spiritually realised than I am to appreciate it…
The ending was a bit odd too. Just before Az goes off in search of her mother’s story, she meets a man called Robert, whom she really fancies. He takes a dim view of her leaving just as the relationship is flourishing, so he tells her that she’s just playing hard-to-get and that he’s off with someone else. That’s the end of that, thinks Az, and so do we, but at the end, all is forgiven and he’s there by her bedside at the hospital when she’s back from India with typhoid and a broken leg. (She fell off the side of a mountain). They have sex in a very strange contorted way because of the metal rods in her broken leg. Odd. Very odd.
These quibbles aside, it’s an interesting tale because it explores the inter-generational effects of a war-damaged childhood. I like the way Az is rendered as an optimistic character who can accept the deficiencies of her parent without blaming her, and then ‘moves on’. ‘Bird’ herself is an exotic creature of the imagination, flitting from man to man and one career to another (including 1950s movie starlet, ’60s junkie party girl and (as you might well guess from her nickname) a singer who hangs out with the jazz greats. She seems incredibly sexy and free-spirited which is why it seems so bizarre that she should end up with a shaved head and monk’s robes .
Author: Sophie Cunningham
Publisher: Text Publishing
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library