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.