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Cover of book: Bird Life

Anna Smaill
Bird Life

“Grief is very tiring,” says Dinah in Bird Life, the second novel by New Zealand poet and author Anna Smaill. Her debut, The Chimes, won the World Fantasy Award and was longlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize. Elements of speculative possibility infuse Bird Life: a novel, gently tipping the reader’s perception off kilter.

Dinah has just moved to Japan from New Zealand. Her work visa is sponsored by a university where she teaches English. She hopes that being in Tokyo will ease the grief of losing her twin, Michael: “It’s good just being somewhere I can turn the corner without thinking of him.” Her grief fails to dissipate: if anything, it strengthens – “the grief that came off her palpable” – and attracts attention.

Yasuko is teaching at the same university. She is charismatic, bawdy and dressed in designer clothes. She seeks a friendship with Dinah after being instructed to do so by a peacock. Yasuko has understood animals since she was 13. “The first moments of her gift had a heavy quality, almost a dullness. It was the quality of inevitability.” The dual narrative structure gives a full sense of this inevitability. The reader is transported – wholly and gladly – into Yasuko’s perspective. Everything makes sense, even when “the world’s strangeness” is no longer “held back by the ordinary routines of the day”.

The book’s exploration of mental health is tender, exacting and entirely without stigma. Characters avoid using “the right words, the words of diagnosis and explanation”. Eschewing the medicalisation of the brain cracks open the novel for poetic and narrative possibility, and equally enables each relationship to be entirely grounded in steady, true emotion. For instance, Michael also heard sounds that others didn’t hear. When describing their relationship, Dinah says: “He built the world, and we both lived inside it. He made it up, and I believed him.”

Smaill’s sentences are the lifeblood of Bird Life. They are smoother and cooler than those in The Chimes, signalling a dazzling new style. Her metaphors and similes expose the magic of the seemingly insignificant rhythms of life. From the process of planting a flower – “she put the earth back that had been removed and eased it in around the plant’s shoulders with great care. Like tucking a child into bed” – to the discovery of a new piano – “Like finding that a horse or a goat had wandered inside. It was ugly and ungainly. It had too many teeth” –  Smaill captures the strange contours of the mind, body and world around us. Bird Life is disquieting and comforting in equal measure. 

Scribe Publications, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "Bird Life".

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