The Bird’s Child: Beauty and brutality, magic and illusion

The Bird’s Child by Sandra Leigh PriceThe Bird’s Child by Sandra Leigh Price fantasy book reviewsThe Bird’s Child by Sandra Leigh Price

There’s something to be said for seeking out authors from more unfamiliar places, especially when experiencing a dry phase in which nothing read quite hits the mark. The experience can be illuminating and so it was with The Bird’s Child, a 2015 debut novel by Australian author Sandra Leigh Price.

The Bird’s Child tells the story of three people living in Sydney in 1929, all with pasts they’d rather forget. There’s Ari, a young Jewish man, victim of a pogrom, who lives with his zealous uncle but dreams forbidden dreams of Houdini and magic. There’s Lily, a mysteriously beautiful young woman whose pale skin and hair have the power to bewitch those around her. And finally there’s Billy, haunted and dangerous, determined to have whatever and whoever he wants.

Each chapter of The Bird’s Child is told by one of the three and so the reader must be patient, watching their stories unfold and intermingle. It’s a powerful technique; as soon as the reader becomes fully invested in one, they are plunged back into the thoughts of another, and so never lose interest in any of them.

Ari and Lily strike up a friendship and start to work on a magic show together, using the intelligent mimicking birds gifted to them by an itinerant wanderer simply known as the “Bird Man”. For Ari, the show helps to fulfil a mysterious destiny — one of his fingers bears a tattoo that reads “abracadabra”. Though he is sure the tattoo has something to do with his dead mother, he can’t remember why or how he got it. For troubled Lily, the show is catharsis and a way to reclaim her identity.

Billy is the shadow cast over the whole story. He quickly becomes obsessed with Lily’s albino beauty and increasingly deranged in his hatred of Ari who he derides with anti-Semitic spite. How far Billy will go in pursuit of Lily forms the crescendo of the story and ensures a constant tension. Eloquent and disturbingly charming, Billy’s complexity is slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks.

Is this a fantasy book? The magic tricks are illusions, based on those performed by Houdini, but there is an implicit tinge, or rather a feel, of “real” magic throughout. It appears in Lily’s strange gifts, in the Bird Man’s tales and talking birds, and in the myths and old stories that take on a fairy tale quality. There’s an interesting range of themes too, from Judaism and anti-Semitism to albinism, child abuse and war. The setting provides an illuminating view of life in Sydney in the 1920s, as well as the Australian bush — a dangerous place where a wanderer may never return.

The Bird’s Child isn’t perfect — Lily is sometimes hard to connect to, prone to becoming a beautiful victim without enough depth and at times the overlapping storytelling means the pace dwindles. Nevertheless The Bird’s Child is a superb debut — an enchanting, lyrically told story, unusual even where it deals with familiar themes.

Published in 2015. (2017 in the USA.) A novel of magic, birds, lost letters and love. Sydney, 1929: three people find themselves washed up on the steps of Miss Du Maurier’s bohemian boarding house in a once grand terrace in Newtown. Ari is a young Jewish man, a pogrom orphan, who lives under the stern rule of his rabbi uncle, but dreams his father is Houdini. Upon his hand he bears a forbidden mark – a tattoo – and has a secret ambition to be a magician. Finding an injured parrot one day on the street, Ari is unsure of how to care for it, until he meets young runaway Lily, a glimmering girl after his own abracadabra heart. Together they form a magical act, but their lives take a strange twist when wild card Billy, a charming and dangerous drifter twisted by the war, can no longer harbour secret desires of his own. The Bird’s Child is a feat of sleight-of-hand. Birds speak, keys appear from nowhere, boxes spill secrets and the dead talk. this is a magical, stunningly original, irresistible novel – both an achingly beautiful love story and a slowly unfurling mystery of belonging. ‘A wonderful, strange, glittering book, full of astounding imagination, glorious really.’ Edward Carey, author of Heap House ‘A shimmering dream of haunted pasts. A silver girl. Abandoned boys. All the magic of the stage. The Bird’s Child is a delight.’ Essie Fox, author of The Somnambulist The Bird’s Child is entirely original, its familiar Sydney settings set asparkle and rendered dreamlike by Sandra Leigh Price’s lyrical and lovely writing. This is a magical fable that penetrates to deep emotional truths.’ Geraldine Brooks ‘This debut novel brings 1920s Sydney to life through a fairytale lens, highlighting the city’s romance, its magic and its mystery … It is the Australian setting that sets this quirky historical romance apart from others of its genre. Price’s dream-like portrayal of a bygone Sydney – with its vaudeville shows and opium dens, lyrebirds and swagmen – establishes a unique mood that transforms the local into the exotic, making The Bird’s Child a memorable tale.’ Australian Book Review ‘Gritty yet enchanting … often deliciously sumptuous and erotically charged … unusual, imaginative’ Newtown Review of Books ‘Skilfully written and richly imagined’ Sydney Morning Herald

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KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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2 comments

  1. This sounds lovely, and I like your approach of seeking out unfamiliar authors from unfamiliar places!

  2. It sounds strange and beautiful and interwar-period Australia is not a setting I’ve seen often. The birds and the tattoo sound quite mysterious!

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