Bird Life

(by Anna Smaill)

When I read The Chimes by Anna Smaill in 2017, it was a 5-star read for me, and while the details of the plot didn’t stick with me, I remembered loving Smaill’s writing. So when I saw Bird Life at the library I immediately grabbed it. The magical realism of this one didn’t work for me as well as the straight-up fantasy of The Chimes, but I’m still glad to have read it. The author bio at the back of the edition I read says that Smaill lived in Tokyo for two years, and yeah, I am not surprised. One of the things I loved about Bird Life is the sense of Tokyo and its environs that comes through in the descriptions of parks and roads and landscapes: the convenience stores, the department stores, the apartment blocks, the landscape as seen from a commuter train (not far from the city, one character looks out at “a proper countryside of ancient mallow trees and kudzu and small shrines hidden in wild grasses as high as your hip”).

The novel follows Yasuko and Dinah, who both teach English at the Saitama campus of Tokyo Denki University and who become friends when their paths cross. When the book opens, Yasuko lives with her son, Jun, who’s about to turn 21; he moves out unexpectedly and won’t explain why. Dinah is a New Zealander who’s living abroad; we learn that her twin brother, Michael, was a talented pianist who took his own life. So Yasuko and Dinah are both dealing with loss, in different ways; their lives have also both been touched by what the book blurb calls “madness” (Michael’s, for Dinah, and her own, for Yasuko: we learn that when she was in her early teens, she started hearing animals talk to her and could read other people’s thoughts; ever since she has been aware of her “powers” as both a gift and a threat). We see Jun’s perspective, too, near the end of the book, and how it feels to him to have been raised by a single parent who wasn’t always able to be fully present during his childhood.

“Why does it have to be all one thing or another?” – this is a question Dinah asks Jun, when she’s talking to him about why he has moved out, why he doesn’t want to see his mother. But the question also resonates with other aspects of the plot: is madness a burden or does it come with gifts? are unexplained or unexplainable things actually happening, or not? Are we meant to read Yasuko’s experiences/interpretations of certain events as delusions or coincidences, or is there something else going on? The way the book leaves aspects of these questions unresolved left me a little unsatisfied, even as I could see how it worked, thematically. But I like phrases like “anger in a woman’s shape,” or passages like: “He sat back in his chair to regard her. He did it slowly, as if time was something from which he had graduated, as she had.” I do like the book’s structure, too—especially the way we see a scene in part at the beginning of the book and then in full later on.






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