Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 29, 2021

The Price of two Sparrows, by Christy Collins

At the end of my review of Christy Collins’ prize-winning novella, The End of Seeing, I wrote:

There is a big picture in this exquisite story, one that shows an author with an all-too-rare awareness of our wider world.

That awareness of our wider world is also woven into Christy Collins’ new release, The Price of Two Sparrows.  From the migratory birds winging their way across the world to coastal Sydney, to research projects that span the globe, to suburbs comprising people of diverse cultural and ethnic origins, the complexity and inter-relatedness of modern society is the bedrock of a novel which has as its theme, humanity vs the environment.

I liked it because it shows the complexity of conflicts which are often depicted in simplistic ways in the media.  I also liked the authenticity of the moment when the reader realises that, no matter how the author resolves the situation, there are no winners.  The Judgement of Solomon, remember, still left one mother heartbroken.

Powerful, empathetic characterisation shows that sometimes when people are challenged over issues about which they feel strongly, they react defensively and dig themselves into entrenched positions.  It shows that these conflicts generate stress and tension that spill over into other aspects of the participants’ lives — marriage, work, social life.

And although there are multiple perspectives about the issue, the narration privileges two voices: one with power because he has authority, knowledge and familiarity with the processes of decision-making; and one who is disempowered because her language difficulties and cultural position prevent her from voicing her perspective in public.  The irony is that it’s the latter who has certainty about her position, while he is conflicted.

Set in coastal Sydney, the story revolves around a proposed development on land adjacent to a nature reserve for protected birds.  Heico Brandsma is a Dutch ornithologist who sees his stand against the development as his one chance to make a difference.  Bogged down by bureaucracy in his public service job in conservation, frustrated by the endless reports and funding submissions and office politics, he finds that the only time he feels solace is when he’s out in the field with the birds that are the focus of his life’s work.  He does not want anything to risk their survival.  Nobody involved in the interminable council decision-making process seems to understand that birds are not creatures that behave in routine, predictable ways.  He’s worried that some aspects of the development will compromise the birds’ flight paths or breeding habits, enough to affect their ultimate survival as a species.

So when a journalist asks him for comment about the development without mentioning what it is, he provides, on an impulse, a misleading graphic of a data set, so that without a caption, it implies that there are many more migratory birds than there really are.  He has no idea that he will soon be enlisted as spokesman in a campaign against the building, the objections masquerading as bird-friendly environmentalism.

Is this morally dubious?  Well, if the reader at this stage is like Heico, envisaging an apartment block of questionable architectural or social merit or a commercial building of some sort, it may seem that Heico’s deception is for the greater good.  But Christy Collins hasn’t made it as easy as that.  It’s not a simplistic capitalism vs conservation dilemma.  The proposed development is a mosque, to be built with funds from a growing Islamic community that has nowhere to worship except the temporary use of a community centre.  For them the sacred building is more than a place to worship, it’s a place to belong.

As Nahla’s narrative explains:

We would arrive to find that the Friday-morning crèche workers had gathered up the toys and unfurled mismatched carpets for us at just the right angle to the mihrab, so we could face the Ka’ba along with our brothers and sisters around the world. Afterwards we rolled up the carpets and stored them under the stairs as we’d been shown, in an equal gesture of goodwill.

But we dreamed of a mosque where the carpets would not need to be rolled away, with a kitchen where meals could be prepared and we could eat together, and a space where our young people could meet one another and talk. We wanted a place where we would not be looked at as strangers.  (p.18)

It’s a dream commission for Salema, the bright young architect. She has envisaged a beautiful building in harmony with its coastal setting, with design options that would allow for men and women to worship together in the same space, if one day the imam could be persuaded to take this step towards modernisation.  He is not, however, the only conservative hurdle that has to be overcome, if Youssef’s parents are anything to go by.

Nahla came to Australia to marry Youssef because his parents did not want him to have an Australian bride…

The women Nahla’s own age, those who were born here, wore their hair pulled into buns beneath their vibrant hijabs.  They wore fashionable jackets belted at the waist.  The colours of their headscarves were echoed in their eye-shadow and handbags, like women on television, city women, women who had more money than her family ever had.

These were the women that Youssef and his parents had found unsuitable when he needed a bride.  They had a sharp quality.  They were not only present, but in some way they always seemed to be presenting themselves to be seen and observed, often to be heard, both by women and by men.  Here I am, their bodies seemed to say.  Pay attention to me. 

It was best not to judge the others when their world was so different to her own.  Still she would instinctively lower her eyes rather than meet their open gazes. (p.22)

Salema believes that compromise is possible and is willing to adapt her design.  But compromise is not an option Heico will consider, because he is not confident that the birds will compromise and adapt.  But his awareness of the way his position is being used is just one of many pressures he is facing, and at home, his marriage is fragile, and not just because both of them are migrants displaced from family and friends.  Eliza put her career ambitions aside to come to Australia with him and she misses her family and friends in America.  Ironically, then, her insecure work means she can go home to visit them.  He is captive to a polite but escalating conflict.

The book is in four parts, beginning in Summer 2004, and concluding in Summer 2007.  Chapters are bookmarked by a list of headlines from Australia and the wider world, and there are ugly Islamophobic incidents in Sydney and elsewhere which add to the narrative tension.

Did the council make their decision for the right reasons?  That’s a question that will engage thoughtful book groups who will enjoy discussing many aspects of this outstanding novel.

Author: Christy Collins
Title: The Price of Two Sparrows
Cover design by Lisa White
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781922400635, pbk., 288 pages
Source: review copy courtesy Affirm Press

Available from Fishpond: The Price of Two Sparrows, direct from Affirm Press or your favourite indie bookseller.


Responses

  1. This sounds a great book for a book group discussion. Our book groups have still not begun to meet again at Fullers book store. I miss them.

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    • There is *so* much to talk about in this novel. I spent *hours* over this review trying to convey how rich it is without spoilers.
      I wonder why your book groups haven’t resumed… Is it a lack of space allowing for social distance?

      Like

  2. Hmm. Resistance is futile … on my list … ;-)

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  3. This sounds like it touches on so many issues, an enticing review.

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    • I hope you can get a copy, it’s such a good book!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It sounds interesting, although I’m curious about the fact that the publisher requested a rewrite of the original narrative to make it situated in Australia, rather than in the locations where the author had personal experiences that inspired the novel.

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        • I didn’t know that… but I do like that it’s here!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t believe that environmental concerns should be overruled for places of worship or community centres any more than for factories and apartment blocks.

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    • Well, nor do I, but decisions about protecting habitat have to be made in an open and transparent way, and based on science.
      This case is not straightforward. The development is not on the nature reserve. It’s next to it. So whatever process they went through to declare the reserve (presumably based on bird surveys etc) the decision was made to protect the reserve, not the adjacent land. Which was for sale, without any covenants or restrictions placed on it, and the people bought it in good faith.
      But birds, of course, do not recognise fences or lines on a map. What makes this book well worth your time, is that the situation is messy.

      Like


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