I began reading Joshua Lobb’s The Flight of Birds (2019), a novel in 12 stories, while on a writing retreat at Bundanon, New South Wales. I was sitting on a bed in one of the monastic rooms that overlooks the Shoalhaven River, window open to the breeze and birds. Here I slipped into the sensitive and intricately woven storyworld and was transported across time to meet birds in bushland and on beaches, on busy roads and bridges, in household cages or chicken yards, in gardens and on front verandahs. I encountered birds close up and far away; they were nesting, flocking, perching on trees or posts, or doing other clever things besides flying, like cracking a walnut by use of passing traffic. Lobb narrates encounters with live birds, extinct birds and fabled birds, all made present to the reader visually and aurally: lyrebirds; sparrows; magpies; cockatoos; chickens; kookaburras; crows; falcons; sea-eagles; budgerigars; golden whistlers; whip birds; bowerbirds; and many, many more.
The Flight of Birds is called a novel in 12 stories for a reason. As Lobb stories our tangled relationships with birds, (our connection to them, disconnection from them), he tries to do so in a way that will provoke our attention. Not unlike the early morning kookaburra calls that wake many of us each day. No story in The Flight of Birds is allowed to settle into a comfortable narrative. Lobb’s storyworld embraces multiple experiences and traverses multiple time periods. Some of the stories are in first person, others in third. Each story has a bird as its central concern and a distraught relationship. Fairy tales, parables, newspaper reports, court transcripts, quotes from academic essays and recountings from television documentaries are embedded within the 12 stories, so that the impact of birds on human lives and human lives on birds is revealed as ever-present, catastrophic and intensely moving.
There is not only experimentation of form within the narrative structure but also in the way each story is presented. Beautiful bird drawings by Amy Kersey begin each tale and the layout of words on the page is often poetically rendered. Besides the birds, there are three human characters that appear constantly: a man, his daughter, and the man’s wife. But time is not chronological. The man is also the boy in some stories, the young man in others. Across several stories the man recounts the life of his daughter growing up, but at the end of the book, the daughter becomes the storyteller. The Flight of Birds is full of surprises, as if Lobb is saying to the reader, don’t get stuck in the routine of traditional storytelling, come fly with me somewhere dangerous, somewhere fun. I dare you.
The first story ‘What He Heard’ tells us about a man and his dog traipsing through the forest, chasing the sound of a child’s painful cry. (An alert here for plot spoilers.) The cry is urgent and the man hastily pushes through thick foliage, his dog beside him, only to discover that the source of the call is a lyrebird, scratching in the shadows of a ruined schoolhouse. Lyrebirds famously mimic the sounds they hear. The man is bemused, but realises as he is walking away, that somewhere, sometime, a child was in pain, and the lyrebird has captured this moment in song. Memory, loss, sorrow, ritual and repetition are the deep concerns of The Flight of Birds. They fuel its narrative urgency and shape its fragmented structure. The empathy we humans have for birds, for each other is a delicate shiny thing that can lose its lustre or even disappear. The story ‘And No Birds Sing’ reads like a dream, with time slippages and blurring points of view. A list of extinct birds appears beside fragmented prose recounting stories of human loneliness and loss.
Books leave their authors and move on to live with other people, in their lives. I think of all the keeper books that keep me company and have taught me things about myself and about the world. Lobb’s book The Flight of Birds will be one of these keepers, a book that lingers and resonates long after you’ve finished reading it.
The day before Christmas, my partner and I took off from Illawarra on a drive to South Australia, where we’d agreed to babysit a farm over the break. On Christmas Eve, crossing the Hay Plain, we were unable to find any accommodation. We drove from town to town with no luck. Eventually, finding ourselves near the pink salt lakes on the Murray Highway in the Victorian stretch between New South Wales and South Australia, we decided to pull a blanket from the car and sleep by the lakes.
The hard ground was uncomfortable and the wind chilly, so I opened my kindle and began reading Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe (2018). I read it compulsively for the next few days as we moved from the pink salt lakes and settled into the Springton farm. The novel, set in Brisbane, is about two bright brothers, Eli and August Bell, their criminal babysitter, junkie mother and step-father, drug dealing neighbours, alcoholic father and an inspiring newspaper journalist. This is both an action-packed, magical and realist thriller, and the comic story of a fragmented down-at-heels family. Eli, the protagonist, takes us on a turbulent ride, putting heart into suburban misery. I laughed out loud so many times that my partner (who has also read and loved this book) constantly asked: ‘What bit are you up to?’ Boy Swallows Universe is full of quirky philosophical advice and poignant insights; a witty coming-of-age story about surviving in a fucked-up world.
On the way back from South Australia, this time reclining in the cool of a dusty Hay hotel room while the weather outside hit 40 degrees, I read Educated (2018) by Tara Westover. My book-loving sister-in-law had handed me a copy as I was leaving the farm. It is tragic, maddening and enlightening all at once. The story of a young girl growing up in a Mormon prepper family, the kind of family that holds to such extreme rules that even other Mormon’s find them too strict. In this family many of the men are violent, many of the women suppressed. Tara is initially fiercely loyal to them. Her limited homeschooling keeps her from questioning behaviours and motivations. Yet she has a curious mind that will not play dead. Eventually, with tough determination and some kindness from others, she gains an education and escapes the family tyranny to live life on her own terms. This is one of the saddest yet gladdest books I’ve read for a while. Sad because the violence of the men who stall her education and stymie her freedom is relentless and depressing. Glad because Tara finds a way out of her dilemma. But at huge personal cost. If The Flight of Birds asks us to think about those others we share the planet with, Educated reminds us that human inequality will be our forever-troubling.
Catherine McKinnon is a writer of novels, plays and short stories. Her novel Storyland (2017) was shortlisted in 2018 for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Barbara Jefferis Award, and the Voss Literary Prize.