The China Bird by Bryony Doran

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The China Bird by Bryony Doran

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An unusual story of love and art that challenges our notions of beauty. Character-driven and beautifully written.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 360 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Hookline Books
ISBN: 978-0955563027

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Edward is a sad and solitary figure. Late middle-aged, twisted-spined and hump-backed, a loner who works in the archive basement of the library, lodges with Mrs Ingrams who makes his tea and ruins his laundry, and hoards letters from his mother.

Like many an unmarried man with an ageing, widowed mother, Edward finds his relationship with her somewhat strained. Unlike many of those men, his relationship was always that way.

She is rude and demanding, and he either doesn't have the strength or the inclination to force the issue with her. Apart from an occasion half-hearted reprimand, he stands back, ignores, makes excuses.

Rachel, the mother in question, is not a particularly unhappy widow. The best she can say of her late husband is that he was a good man. As a mark of respect it says enough; in terms of a married life devoid of either joy or passion it speaks greater volumes.

Joy and passion are not words uppermost in Edward's lexicon either.

Then there is Angela. Young. Beautiful. Studying art with a true passion for the work. Old-fashioned work, her tutor says, no-one is interested in life studies these days. The old virtues of simple, detailed, exactly executed, studies of the human body drawn by hand and eye and rendered exquisite or interesting or beautiful are simply not in demand any more. It won't be enough the tutor says. She should try other media he says, come up with something a bit more stunning. After all she has the talent.

Whether these scenes were intended as a comment on the modern art world on the part of the author or not, they chimed with this reader. A Dali exhibition a few years ago left me speechless – not at seeing in the flesh all of those images from many a student bedroom, but at witnessing the pen and ink drawings: a hand, a face, a torso. This was true talent, true craft, proof that he wasn't just a surrealist ideas-merchant: the man could actually draw! If that sounds arrogant coming from someone with scarce a creative fibre in their being, forgive me, but it was the honest reaction. Those small sketches took my breath away.

No wonder then that I fell for Angela immediately. Brought up by her grandparents, and semi-adopted by the mythical Claudette for whom her grandmother cleaned, there is something of the fairy-tale orphan about her. She is difficult not to love.

She does work on it though. For all her strengths, she can be unutterably pathetic in the face of a good-looking guy. Despite standing up to the authority of the man who holds her future career in his hands, she can fall apart in the face of rudeness from a near stranger. She follows her dream and demands her right to do so, but turns callous and cold when others dare to voice their own unexpected hopes.

Claudette is dead. It is her funeral that brings Angela into the realm of Edward and his mother; they meet at the funeral. Claudette is some kind of family to Rachel and Edward, though Rachel refuses to say exactly how.

In Edward, Angela finds her muse. This unusual figure is the person she wants to draw. She cannot explain exactly why, only that she finds in him a vulnerable strength, a strange beauty, a difference that should be explored rather than hidden or mocked or ignored. For his part, Edward is naturally reluctant to take on the role of model, even more so when he finally realises (it has to be put in words of one syllable) that Angela expects him to pose nude.

As the work progresses, Edward awakens from years of suppressed emotion and apathy and begins to take an interest in the world around him, in his own being, and – naturally – in Angela. Their relationship is the prime focus of the novel, as it develops along a tightrope of understanding, empathy, misunderstanding, love, repulsion, attraction and confusion.

All the while the reader is drawn into lives of admitted and denied loneliness. It is a sweet tale, a beauty and the beast rendered more real, with all the complications that brings.

Death and dying haunt the background of this fragile work. Claudette, Edward's father, his great uncle, all are dead and their deaths impact directly on the events to unfold. There are the shadowy figures of Angela's parents: alive or dead? The tutor's mother is dying of cancer. It's the darkness on the edge of the frame, throwing into sharp relief the attempts of Angela and Edward each to claim a life while they can. The one young and eager. The other older, frailer, more uncertain.

To steal a word from another reviewer, it is a delicate novel. Not over-emotional it hovers like an insistent moth around the edges of your consciousness, quietly insisting that you turn just one more page. Spot-on characterisation ensures you will have a view on each of the protagonists, a view that will change as the book moves back and forth, but one which will always have you wanting to know what will become of their hopes and dreams and disasters.

As satisfying as the ending is in balancing the book, that wanting-to-know won't go away very easily. But then, isn't that the point of art? To be instructional, life-affirming, but always to leave you with a little uncertainty?


I'd like to thank the author for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy The Coast of Akron by Adrienne Miller.

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Buy The China Bird by Bryony Doran at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The China Bird by Bryony Doran at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
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