After complaining about the whiteness of the Carnegie award for three years in a row now, I’ve been trying to find recent children’s books, by non-white authors, that might have been on the shortlist (or even the longlist) in other circumstances. Would Bird have been eligible for the medal? I’m not sure—it was shortlisted for the Waterstones children’s book prize this year, but I suspect that, if it was eligible at all, it would have been so for last year’s Carnegie, since it first came out in 2014. (To further complicate matters, one of the rules for the prize is also that if published elsewhere first, the book must be published in the UK within three months, and that can be difficult to work out.)
Jewel is twelve, and knows that the home she lives in is an unhappy one. On the day of her birth her older brother, then five, tried to “fly” from the local cliff and plummeted to his death. Since then her birthday has been marked by mourning, her parents unhappy and still blaming one another; and her grandfather, who gave John the nickname “bird” and who blames himself for his death, has not spoken since it happened. Jewel’s multiracial family is also something of an oddity in her small Iowa town; her father’s family are Jamaican, while her mother is half-Mexican. Her father, always superstitious, has forbidden her to go near the cliff, and futilely attempts to grow non-native plants in their garden in order to ward off duppies. Her mother is worried and distracted and would like her daughter to have safer and less extraordinary thoughts and ambitions.
But then Jewel meets John, a boy her own age who is visiting his uncle for the summer, and everything changes. John is fascinated by astronomy in the way that Jewel is by geology; they are awed and respectful of one another’s knowledge, show each other their own particular haunts and secret places, and share some of the complexities of their respective families (John is black, and adopted, and has complicated feelings about his adopted [white] parents). Jewel’s initial discomfort over the coincidence (or is it?) of John’s name being that of her brother soon dissipates, but her grandfather refuses to accept John’s entry into his home.
It’s clear to the reader, if not to Jewel (for a surprisingly long time) that her grandfather believes John to be a duppie—whether or not he is justified in this belief is less clear. Jewel and John’s friendship begins rather eerily—John is a common enough name, but long before the grandfather’s suspicions enter the picture the reader is wondering about his connection to Jewel’s lost brother. Until we know what genre of book we’re reading, we can’t know who or what John really is. There’s much about Bird that teeters on the brink of the supernatural in any case—its spectacular landscapes, the exaggerated (but not, because it’s entirely plausible) extreme of the man who has been silent for over a decade are all there to invoke—if not the strictly SFFnal—a sense of wonder, or the possibility of wonder. Jewel has created a set of rituals for herself involving the rocks she arranges at the top of the cliff, and there too, the reader is left half-believing in them. And Jewel and John’s respective hobbies mean that we’re full alive to the vastness of astronomical space and geological time.
Supernatural (or not) overtones aside, a thing that Bird does particularly well is a set of real, complex, and often awful relationships. The book informs me that the author also grew up as a mixed-race kid (though in Wisconsin, not Iowa) and some of the complexities of Jewel’s situation are presumably drawn from experience. But there are difficult things here (that are hopefully not drawn from experience) and in dealing with them Chan is largely precise and kind. Jewel’s family do, at some level, all love one another, but grief has affected the individual people involved (in varied and complicated ways), as well as the dynamics of their relationships; the impact of that grief is never trivialised and can’t be fully resolved. The book in this aspect is well-named; the shadow of Bird/John’s death lies heavy over the characters. It’s hard to imagine an uncomplicatedly happy ending for this family that doesn’t first involve years of consciously working towards it. But of course “and things were complicated for several years afterwards” isn’t really a satisfying plot structure, and Bird obtains what structure it has from two particular relationships: Jewel and John, who are friends, face conflict, and have to learn to forgive one another; and Jewel and her grandfather, who she has never heard speak in all the 12 years of her life. The second of these is by far the more complicated—and if they’re both a bit too easy and too pat, they’re counterbalanced by still existing in a world where very little else is easy.
And yet, despite all the things about Bird that I like very much, I’m not sure whether I think it works well as a whole object. I applaud its lack of easy resolution and its refusal to simplify its world, but much of what’s going on in the background, however well drawn, feels a bit directionless. I keep changing my mind—either I think it’s got a clever slice-of-life feel to it (here is some stuff that happened over this summer, but life will go on, slightly altered, for these characters; that’s the story) or it’s a bit baggy and slack.