Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2019

The Flight of Birds, by Joshua Lobb

Included among the shortlisted books for the 2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, was a book by an author entirely new to me.  Joshua Lobb is senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Wollongong and The Flight of Birds is his first novel.  It consists of 12 interlinked stories which loosely form a novel, and it’s one of a series called Animal Publics which focusses on the interaction between humans and animals.

The first story ‘What he heard’, introduces an unnamed man walking his dog in the bush.  He is not well:

He was staying in a friend’s cabin; he’d been there a month.  It was after what people called ‘his breakdown’, or what those closer to him called ‘one of his breakdowns’.  He just thought of it as ‘normality’.  It was a feeling he always had, hovering, just out of reach.  Every few years it would swoop down, grab him by the shoulders and carry him away.  (p.3)

Lobb’s setting suggests an intimacy that comes from long acquaintance with the bush:

Broken leaves crunched underfoot.  He was careful to sidestep the knuckles of eucalypt roots.  He could hear the dog, sniffing, in the semi-darkness.  He wasn’t sure if the dog was still following the wombat track, or the line of scent, or charting his own way between the thin trees. Their bark was smooth, mostly: lavender-grey with purpling bruises.  Every now and then his hand would brush against the rougher, splintery skin of a turpentine.  The treetops creaked in the rasping breeze.

Then he heard it.  An oozing, matted sound.  Plots of noise like snoring, sobbing.  The sound was too incoherent to be nearby and yet it felt close, like a heartbeat, thumping. (p.3)

This solitary man conquers his instinct to flee because he recognises this alarming sound as the wail of a child…

After this comes ‘Six stories about birds, with seven questions’.  A moment’s carelessness leads to the escape of a pet budgie called Charlotte, and the stories are told to distract the bereft child.  The father is a bit disconcerted to rediscover just how many fairy stories feature birds, both benign and malign.

It is not until the novel progresses that the third story ‘Call and Response’ seems to connect with the first one.  Again the characters are unnamed, but the man shares the emotional fragility of the first man with the dog.  In ‘Flocking’ — a heartbreaking story of the cruelties of school towards misfits, the background of the characters begins to be filled in.  And as the stories continue, the behaviour of humans begins to resemble that of birds: in ‘The Pecking Order’ the man endures his lowly place among his boisterous in-laws; the aggression is more overt in ‘Magpies’ when a workplace bully picks on the only named human in the book.  Notice here how cunning the characterisation is:

The first is our team leader.  She’s dynamic, inspiring, zealous: a stickler for detail, a cutter-to-the-chase. Her polished hair is shrewdly scraped back and her earrings glint.  Her jacket is tailored precisely: v-shaped around the neck, bold at the shoulders, slender at the waist.  A permanent silhouette. Only occasionally do you see flashes of the white blouse underneath. Her eyes dagger about the room. […]

The second person is not polished or decisive or inspiring. His name is Peter.  He’s probably in his fifties; he might always have been in his fifties.  He’s a bit sloppy. Today he’s wearing a lumpen jumper over his shirt and tie and there’s a glob of breakfast on it. There’s a shred of unshaven beard in the bend of his jaw. He’s kind of foul. We’re always on task-and-finish working groups together, but I never want to make eye contact with him.  I try to make small talk in the stairwell up to our department.  He has terrible teeth: brown and clumsy.  (p. 134)

When the stories draw to a close, there are Field Notes, which comprise about a third of the book.  This section reminded me of the illuminating essay in Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s My Name is Revenge where — for the benefit of readers who may never have heard of it —she links her short story with the Armenian Genocide.  (See my review here).  Written retrospectively, Lobb’s ‘notes’, however, focus on the process of writing The Flight of Birds:

… a tracing of the oscillations between (sometimes contradictory) ideas; the marking out of discoveries made, digressions explored, and surprises chanced upon.  More importantly, they are discussions about the points of encounter between two ‘fields’ that made the writing possible: the discourses or disciplines we call ‘fiction’ and ‘animal studies.’

I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to read this section: I was still immersed in the fictional world and the switch to this academic style was disconcerting after the beauty and sensitivity of the stories.  But my curiosity triumphed, and I found it fascinating to read about how these stories emerged and had been constructed in very precise ways.

Lobb’s awareness of the world of birds and how humans interact with them made me think of another recent book, The Grass Library by David Brooks (see my review here).  It’s a deeply thoughtful (and yet often light-hearted and amusing) book about the ethical compromises humans make to justify their relationship with animals.  Lobb’s novel comes from a different place because it is also a meditation on loss and loneliness, but it shares the same preoccupation with the way we share the same spaces as animals but see ourselves as apart.

I am grateful to the Readings Prize for introducing me to the work of this most interesting author.

Author: Joshua Lobb
Title: The Flight of Birds
Publisher: Sydney University Press, 2019, 313 pages (which includes110 pages of Field Notes and Acknowledgements)
ISBN: 9781743325834
Review copy courtesy of Sydney University Press

Available from Fishpond The Flight of Birds and direct from Sydney University Press


Responses

  1. […] The Flight of Birds by Joshua Lobb, (update 18/9/19) see my review […]

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  2. I wonder if he thought his writing about writing was so good he just couldn’t bear to not share it. (I think that about all my writing!)

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    • No, there’s more to it than that. I haven’t gone into it in much detail because I don’t want to give the impression that it’s an academic book because that might put off readers who might otherwise love it. But trust me, I am not usually interested in writers writing about writing, I’m mostly only interested in the product. But I found it fascinating, and I think that’s because he’s doing something different, explaining a different way of looking at the world, considering climate change and the rate of extinction, and trying to look at the world of birds without being anthropomorphic.
      He’s not just navel-gazing like some writers do because they can’t think of anything else to write about except themselves.

      Liked by 1 person


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