A man and a woman go on an extended hiking tour of Australia and New Zealand, and especially Tasmania, Australia’s island state, in Birdbrain by the Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo. Neither is a particularly likable person, or has a particularly interesting voice.
Jyrki makes his living as a roving bartender, spending a few months here, a few weeks there. He is a snob about hiking and camping, expressing nothing but disdain for any campsite that offers bunk beds in a bare bones cabin instead of a place to pitch your tent. He prides himself on never carrying too much, so that he eats his very last crumbs of food on his very last day of a trip — which is all well and good, until things begin to go missing. He drives his companion relentlessly, refusing to ever have an easy day of hiking when he could instead force them to go twice the recommended distance.
Heidi, Jyrki’s companion, is even less likable. She staged a sexual assault on her person in order to get the cash to accompany Jyrki on his months-long expedition. She has little regard for the sensitive environment through which they are hiking, proposing fires in tinder-dry areas and disposing of garbage on the sly when Jyrki can’t see her doing it, instead of hiking out of the wilderness with it as she is supposed to.
It’s not entirely clear what these two are up to. They rarely comment on the beauty around them; most of the time they seem to be slogging through a physical trial that gives them no pleasure. Heidi no longer enjoys Jyrki’s company; certainly the sex that attracted her to him so strongly is a thing of the past, as she’s too exhausted after a day’s hiking to even consider it. Jyrki, on the other hand, becomes increasingly interested in Heidi as a life partner the longer they go on, especially because she refuses to complain; he admires her stoicism.
Most of the book reads as a travelogue as the two hike through progressively wilder landscapes. There are frequent references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the wilderness starts to take on a personality of its own, one that is not interested in the company of anyone, not even these intrepid and respectful hikers. Oddly, though, there are also frequent short passages that seem to be written by someone who takes great joy out of causing vandalism, escalating to mayhem and ultimately to much worse behavior. Who narrates these sections? Sinisalo never tells us directly. But given the encounters the two hikers have with the kea, a type of parrot that is indigenous to New Zealand — omnivorous, and more than mischievous — one starts to wonder.
It isn’t easy to tease out the fantastic in this novel, which seems much more like a depressing mainstream account of an ill-matched couple on a disastrous vacation. Although the descriptions of the landscape and wildlife are occasionally exhilarating, the relationship between Jyrki and Heidi, and the interactions they have with other hikers along the way, are so unpleasant as to dominate the narrative. If Sinisalo’s intent was to make the primitive, untouched wilderness seem a more equable companion to the human race than either of these two, she succeeded — but she did so without making the environment a character in any sense of that word, without making the world seem like much of a marvelous place or nature a beautiful, rather than a purely malicious, force.
Other reviewers have touted this novel as a forceful environmental novel, calling it, for instance, “a brilliant piece of writing about the environment.” I simply found it a bore.