A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When Will meets Alice, he can’t believe his luck. She’s smart, sexy and, much to Will’s surprise, in love with him. Alice brings meaning to his urban existence. But true love never came easy and soon devotion leads Will to something darker.
My goodness, The Bird Room is a book of two halves, and isn’t really fully served by the rather minimalist blurb either. Both halves I thoroughly enjoyed but for very different reasons. From Will’s point of view, the first half of his story is essentially comic, and the last half strangely tragic. Much like life really, in some ways.
However, the narrative is actually shared between Will (who is mentioned above), and Helen (who strangely isn’t – and why not, I ask myself? It’s a mystery …). As far as I could tell, Helen is real within the confines of the book anyway – and it was a little tricky as Helen’s real name is Clair and she has a make-believe sister, but none of them is Alice. Are you with me so far? If I dare sum up at this point in proceedings, I’d say that, roughly speaking, Will starts out comic and then turns tragic, whilst Helen start out tragic and then – to all intents and purposes – ends up comic. Or at least on a more positive note. A nice balance then.
The story starts magnificently and, as keen bird-watcher, I was of course delighted with the first paragraph:
Paintings of small birds. Wrens, robins, chaffinches, budgies (lots of budgies), birds like that. All bright yellows, reds, browns and greens, except for the pigeon. The pigeon is grey.
What could be nicer? Though I did wonder if the pigeon might in fact be a collared dove, as a more universally grey bird, but hey I know that’s being picky. I loved Will’s voice at the start of the book too, though as I’ve already said, his later voice is more challenging. He’s both utterly unconfident about his relationship with Alice and utterly unable to talk about how he feels to her. The way this is described in the story is both realistic and witty. Will is a charmer unaware of how charming he actually is. Always a plus point in a man.
His problems really begin when he introduces Alice to his best friend, also called Will. And yes, it does get confusing, so you have to keep your wits about you, but that’s okay – this author wants you to have to do that. The other Will is an artist who paints birds, and is far more successful than our Will, who doesn’t have a job at all. Though he pretends he does. Hence, the feelings of jealousy and desperation which begin to encroach on the first Will’s emotions. When, for instance, Alice cries out his name during sex, is she thinking of him, or the other one?… All this niggles away at the poor lad in prose that is both sharp and clear until it turns his life around entirely and takes him to the dark. It’s wonderful the way the author keeps Will as such a strong and sympathetic figure even when he’s surfing the net for porn day in and day out to see if he can find Alice and delete the video she’s been involved in. It was obsessive, vulnerable and gripping. I like that.
I also enjoyed the comic sense of male social unease that fills this novel. Here’s our Will asking the other Will how his holiday went:
‘How was your holiday?’ I shout.
I shout it a bit too loudly.
How was your holiday? hangs in the air. It becomes louder than the kettle. We sit on the sofa listening to it. She (Alice) has her legs crossed. They’re crossed away from me. How was your holiday? becomes unbearably, excruciatingly loud. If all the birds in all these paintings began to sing, suddenly, they would still not be louder than How was your holiday?
I want to say something else, anything at all. I can think of nothing to say. Alice doesn’t help me out. She thinks How was your holiday? is funny.
Eventually Will comes back in with the three teas – his and hers in one hand, mine in the other. He’s so tall he has to stoop as he enters.
‘Sorry, did you say something?’ he says, handing me my mug.
I can’t bring myself to repeat it.
‘How was your holiday?’ she asks.
I want to pour the boiling tea over myself. I want to pour it over my head and my crotch.
Ah well, we’ve all been there. Apart from, maybe the crotch part. Later, the relationship between Will and Alice seriously breaks down and becomes described in almost surreal terms. She may, or may not, have a sexual encounter with the other Will in front of the first one; and she may or may not ignore him, as he has asked her to do. The breakdown is portrayed with great and simplistic honesty that had me, for one, gripped.
Helen, as a figure, is somehow more complex and shadowy. Her life as a secret and not very successful porn film actress is the constant hub around which all her encounters with other people turn, but she does have a stubborn streak of practicality and optimism it’s impossible not to like. I particularly enjoyed the ways she handles her mother and puts her off the scent. Like Will, Helen’s fantasy life is a rich one and includes the invisible sister and the scenarios she invents about her flatmate. Here’s Helen thinking about that sister:
In the shower (and at other times too), Helen has a sister. The sister is witty and cruel and sarcastic – not to Helen, just to everyone else. When they’re alone the sister reveals her true self and it is soft and kind, like the underside of a kitten. Helen imagines this sister soaping her back now, very gently. In return she soaps the sister’s back. She’s never given the sister a name; it would make her feel too sad.
In fact a great deal of this novel focuses on the interplay between reality and fantasy in our lives, in terms of ourselves and others, and how we deal with both.
Helen’s life takes a turn for the more curious in her encounters with a new client and what he asks her to do takes her into a different zone altogether. Interestingly, the new client is called Will. It’s hard to know if it’s one of the Wills we know or another entirely different one (though my money’s on our Will, I think …), but frankly I’m not sure the uncertainty matters. It’s part of the thrill of the chase in this story, really. Everything’s there and everything’s slightly strange. People are who they are and then they might not be. Or they might be someone else. Like a rather subtle nightmare or an overproductive dream. Anyway, it’s here that the tone of Helen’s narrative begins to move away from the essentially tragic and towards something a little lighter. While Will breaks down, Helen somehow comes together, thus keeping the balance between them both. Here she is with the mysterious client Will – worthwhile quoting almost in full, I think:
Helen looks at his penis, which is still incredibly hard and pointing at her face like an angry buzzing finger. It is making a noise.
Helen wants to laugh. She feels it mount inside her; a manic violent laughter like a pan of water, boiling then overflowing. She keeps her face blank but lets the laughter spill out silently inside her.
He notices her looking at his penis. He looks down at it, too.
‘It’s Viagra,’ he says.
‘Oh,’ says Helen.
She looks up at his face.
The laughter turns from boiling water to salt. It falls in a dry shower on the pit of her stomach.
‘How long does it last?’ Helen asks.
‘About twelve hours,’ he says.
‘Oh my god,’ she says.
She can’t help herself. She starts to laugh again, this time outwardly. She imagines him having to make dinner, brush his teeth, read a newspaper, all with that ridiculous throbbing hard-on.
‘Doesn’t it make it difficult? You know, if you want to go out or something?’
His expression changes; not a smile, but something, like the corner of a curtain being lifted back and a tiny bit of light getting in.
Even so, although I know the author needed to do this in order to maintain the book’s narrative structure, I would have preferred just a tad more of that light comic touch to the last half of Will’s side of the story. But that’s my only niggle really, and it’s a personal one.
All of which makes it an added pleasure when the final – astonishingly hopeful, under the circumstances – word goes to Helen. The ending is frankly very good indeed and left me with a big, book-inspired smile on my face. Always a happy event. So, yes, this book is unusual – it’s gritty, strange, splintered, modern and surreal. Whilst being clever, witty and bleak. And all that in only 202 pages. So a haiku-style novel at last, hurrah! Gosh. I enjoyed it. I certainly liked it a whole lot more than the Amazon UK reviewers appear to have done anyway. I shall look forward with considerable interest to Killen’s next offering. I hope it’s soon.
The Bird Room by Chris Killen (Canongate Books, 2010), ISBN: 978 1 84767 261 2)
[Anne always enjoys a smidgeon of creepy surrealism and also has a soft spot for birds. For more information on her other peculiarities, please click here.]