The Kindness of Birds by Merlinda Bobis

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

The art work on its cover accompanied by a line of music with lyrics reading “It moves both ways And all ways – like breath” is a perfect intimation of the book’s content.

The writer devoted much of the fourteen chapters to both the impact and importance of kindness, as essential as life, breath, itself.

Merlinda Bobis, with a seemingly effortless touch, has compiled short story chapters which link in subtle ways and glide over time, sometimes in the past and often in the present. It is a novel in an unusual form but expands and reveals aspects of the characters and their histories that sharply illumines. This is so well handled that it is unsurprising that she has successfully published four novels, six books of poetry and had dramatic works performed.

Settings range from Australia to the Philippines. Within Australia, Broome, rural Tasmania are vividly brought to life.

One of my favourite episodes is the one set in Broome when Candido, who becomes a Filipino revolutionary before returning to his homeland, worked in the perilous pearl diving industry. The horrors of hunting for pearls in the late nineteenth century is replaced by winning a lottery and becoming an owner of a printing press which becomes an aid to the revolutionaries back in Manila. Eventually he is assassinated in 1897.

Candido’s falling in love then marrying a Noongar woman is not an historical fact, but it is Merlinda’s clever weaving of her stories with reality and fiction that enliven the book.

In almost every chapter, birds feature. Their presence affects the women, Nenita and Remy, in different stages. Sometimes they hover, lightening spirits with their colour and sounds. In one story, a pair of glass doves on the stopper of a perfume bottle, which was first produced after WW2, is a symbol of a longing for peace – L’Air du Temps.

So contemporary is the plight of Luningning (Lou) and her little grandson who are in isolation because of Covid. A company of owls brings a joy to their dull existence. There is Mama owl and her owlet, a ceramic barn owl, a tiny jade one, a wooden owl even a crocheted pink owl. There are more…. This parliament of owls helps to steer the little boy through the scary times and to do his homework each day. Kindness from Lou abounds.

Their plight would resonate with many.

On Day 12, when the Premier is giving his daily press conference, Victor joyously notices that there is a bird twittering there, on the screen!

Current issues such as Climate Change, domestic violence, recognition of our First Nation peoples are integral parts of the narrative, but in a conversational rather than confrontational manner.

Wildly optimistic to suggest that, if kindness played a major role, change might happen?

The Kindness of Birds resembles a literary puzzle in the sense that there are pieces that connect and elaborate the picture of life in this troubled world. Initially it was unsatisfactory- probably the fault is mine, being so used to a more linear style. When more accustomed, I found it to be deeply moving and at times beautifully striking.

Merlinda Bobis’s poetic phrases are memorable, too. She defines grief as a ‘house where you can’t find the door’; and they ‘listened to raindrops conversing on the windscreen.’

The final chapter, Ode to Joy, signifies the reaction the entire work inspires.

Despite sadness, tragedy, death and adversity, the feeling is far from desperately overwhelming. Awareness and appreciation of birds grace dark times and brings a unique comfort.

The Kindness of Birds

[2021]

by Merlinda Bobis

Spinifex Press

ISBN 978 192595 030 4

$26.95; 220pp

 

 

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