Birdy by William Wharton

Introduced by Henry Shawdon, resident of Buenos Aires but soon to be resident of Hay.

I bought this book (after finding it in a Hay-on-Wye bookshop many years ago) mainly because a very good friend told me that it was one his favourite books and I love to read books recommended by friends, it adds a layer of intimacy to the reading experience.

Birdy is now one of my favourite books. It tackles the damage wrought by war and mental illness in a truly original way. At the heart of the book are two friends, Al and Birdy, who are drafted in WWII and return from the war changed, Al is physically damaged and Birdy is convinced that he is a bird. Locked in a military prison, he will not talk, only peep. The story flashes back and forth from their shared childhood to their wartime experiences as Al tries to talk Birdy out of his trance.

My favourite moments are where Birdy is a boy and he is trying to distinguish between his daytime life and his night-time dreams, between being a boy or a bird. The blending of dream and reality is delicious, seamless and moving. I began to believe in the dream more than the reality, I wanted him to become a bird, I wanted him to fly.

The writing is pared down, concise, un-flashy, the author never intrudes, he stays utterly faithful to the voices of the two friends who are the only real characters in the book. He is brave enough to take his characters seriously, no distancing irony, no allegory, no authorial commentary, no judgement, and he pulls it off, it is fascinating and funny and wonderful.

Plus, you’ll learn a great deal about canaries.




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