Fight, flight, live: find your story
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Review: Jonathan Amid
After Nadia Davids so evocatively captured female youth and the tensions of growing up as a Muslim girl during the interregnum in An Imperfect Blessing, Maire Fisher’s luminous debut, Birdseye, offers an altogether less political, but no less intriguing, South African narrative.
Spanning a measure of time from 1984 to 1995, Fisher draws the reader in from the start, telling the story of Amelia “Bird” Little, her parents, Annie and Oliver and her five siblings: sisters Angela, Anthea and Alice, and twin brothers Oliver and Oscar.
The story of the Little family is defined by the menacing, icy presence of matriarch Ma Bess, who rules over their home, the Marchbanks-Hall mansion in Harbiton, with a steely grip.
Ma Bess is an “ice queen” and a “dragon” whose malicious actions and intemperate words thunder through the passages.
She has little time for any of her grandchildren, despises her son-in-law Oliver, and has a terrible secret to keep, one that involves the wonderfully named “Pa God”, which will have her family reeling.
Yet Birdseye concerns itself not only with the vicissitudes of the Little household in relation to the terrifying Ma Bess. A far greater narrative of all-consuming loss is to take hold of the young life of Bird, so named because of the gentle cheeps she made at birth.
Her twin brothers disappear after a fishing trip, and this cataclysmic event – affecting each member of the Little family differently, but having a particularly pronounced effect on the development of the young Bird – sets in motion the desperate attempts by a sensitive girl to keep the memory of her beloved brothers alive.
It is no accident that the boys leave Bird with a memento – a fish hook, before their fateful departure: Fisher’s novel finds a fitting way to hook the reader, presenting written correspondence from the traumatised Bird to her brothers, writing that captures all the pain, disillusionment, lyricism, tenderness, tenacity, playfulness and a conscious desire to stand guard against forgetting that apply to the novel as a whole as well.
It is, furthermore, an entirely apposite narrative device to employ Bird’s one-sided “conversations”, where she is able to find her own voice and determine the texture and content of her stories in relation to the powerlessness and alienation she feels as the rest of her family, particularly her three sisters – characterised in turn by their submissive, rebellious and questioning natures – each finds their own set of wings, and battle to escape from various cages, be they domestic, social, or explicitly political.
If Birdseye is a meditation on the power dynamics that make families what they are, it is also acutely aware of the way that life has an uncanny way of pulling the rug from under our feet, leaving us with mysteries that might never be sufficiently answered.
As the disappearance of Bird’s twin brothers leave a terrible absence in the lives of the Littles, Birdseye’s narrative trajectory slowly but surely inches closer to the telling of an altogether different kind of story: the detective thriller. Fisher adroitly shifts gears to accommodate a stylistic and thematic fork in the road where the tone becomes altogether more gloomy, the protagonist finds herself consumed less by grief than by obsession, and the bare bones of the truth are delivered by a Detective Ace: the world is much greater than Marchbanks-Hall, and filled with men that would love nothing more than to see the world burn.
Giving nothing away, the novel’s portentous conclusion confirms that the protagonist indeed has the courage of her convictions.
Ditto the author.
In a protean narrative that shifts its thematic focus while remaining constant in focalisation, we encounter lucid, considerably warm prose – cutting across intriguing views on forms of love and relationships, loss, the nature of freedom and the need to keep searching in life – figured through metaphorical language that makes full use of references to birds (wings, feathers, flight) and angels (halos, light, wings, purity and protection).
Only on occasion does this technique become too ornate and distracting.
A debut brimming with quiet confidence, Birdseye offers far more than a cursory glance or a simple view from above at ordinary people touched by extraordinary sadness.
As we journey from caverns of darkness and pain to faint glimmers of hope and tremendous courage, from a girl’s quest to remember her brothers and to guard against oblivion to our own ever-pressing need to tell our own stories and find a place to call home, we are reminded of the need to search for truth, no matter how trying the quest.
l Amid is a part-time lecturer and literary doctoral student at the University of Stellenbosch.