Birdy by William Wharton

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Birdy by William Wharton

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Birdy is not a plot-driven book. If you enjoy lots of action, then it's not for you, but you'll be missing out. It's a beautiful book about the meaning of insanity and about the terrible costs of war. It's also deeply touching. Bookbag recommend you at least borrow it.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 1992
Publisher: Vintage Books USA
ISBN: 0679734120

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His shattered face swathed in bandages from a series of reconstructive surgeries, Al Columbato leaves one military hospital for another. This time it is not for treatment, but to help a childhood friend. When he arrives even Al, well used to Birdy's strangeness, is shocked at his condition. Birdy is in a secure mental unit in a catatonic state, crouched upon the floor unmoving, unable even to feed himself. It is Al's task, given to him by the hospital psychiatrist Dr Weiss, to talk to Birdy, to try to rouse him from his stupor. The two boys have been friends for years, the closest friends imaginable. War had separated them and now that war is over they are together again, and yet they are still apart, for one has returned with terrible physical injuries, the other with his senses destroyed. And only Al knows that Birdy is living his life as he always wanted to live it, as a bird.

Right from the early days Birdy was odd, different, not like the others. He dreamed of flying, of birds, of being a bird. His was an all-consuming obsession. He spent his time observing birds, charming them, catching them and training them. He made himself suits of feathers and increasingly unlikely contraptions to aid his dream. Al was a big, strong, bluff, aggressive young man, and a most unlikely friend for the shy, withdrawn Birdy. But their neighbourhood was rough and they were joined in the strange way children sometimes are; by a mutual need. They both wanted to escape, to soar above and away from the squalor of their surroundings and find something more true, something different, something better.

So, although he laughed at his eccentricities, and shook his head at his escapades, Al never mocked Birdy, he helped him try to fulfil that dream. And somehow, from Birdy, he found the friendship he needed. As Al watches him in his hospital cell, he recalls those childhood days and talks of them for hours which blend into days which blend into weeks. Wharton tells the story by a double narrative; by Al's words and by Birdy's thoughts and he tells it in two timeframes: in flashbacks to those childhood remembrances and in the pain and confusion of the present. Al's narrative is crude and colloquial yet searingly honest, also touchingly so. Birdy's words are dreamlike and poetic; they seem born from nature itself, from instinct, from something that is neither past nor present.

Birdy's obsession grew stronger as he went through adolescence and there were some things he couldn't even tell Al. But he remembers them now as Al talks to him of those times; he remembers the fantasy life he once had, the way he imagined himself as one of his birds so strongly that he dreamed dreams that felt real. He remembers as he struggles inside both to find himself again and also to stay as he is, a bird, a free creature with thoughts but no words, that his dreams gradually overtook his waking life until he could no longer tell one from the other.

And Al, as he talks, searches constantly for a flicker of recognition from his friend, partly desperate to see it, to see the Birdy he once knew and to know him again. But he's also afraid for what will happen if he does and wonders if Birdy is better off where he is, cocoooned from the harsh, cruel world. For Al is afraid for himself too; the war for him was a terrible experience. He was a boy who hated authority, who had been beaten by his father and thought that he'd been made tough by his experiences. War showed him differently. War brought a fear to Al that he'd never imagined, and now that war is over he is afraid that he, too, is going insane. He has found out too many things about himself and about the world and they are things he'd never wanted to know. Both boys are fighting a desperate battle to overcome their demons and find a way to live again.

Eventually Birdy does begin to respond. And eventually Al begins to come to terms with his experience. It's a book without much plot but one with a great deal of tension wrought by the force of the writing and the intensity of past experience as it is recalled. The scenes where reality blurs for Birdy as he begins to feel and live as one of his canaries and those of the battle scenes where Al learns too much about the nightmare of war and is forced to look too deeply inside himself will stay with you for a long, long time.

Reading Birdy fills you right up inside, do you know what I mean? You wander off into your own little dream world; it's almost a private thing, and not really something you can put into words. It's not what you'd call a page-turner, not at all - reading it you'll suddenly realise that you're along no further than you were ten minutes before because a part of it struck you so strongly that you've spent those ten minutes quietly musing on it. I've read Birdy six or seven times now, and each time, although I didn't think there was any more room, it seems to fill me up just a little bit more than did the last. It's a not-particularly-original story of an unlikely friendship between two very different boys, of the way that 'difference' and 'insanity' are so sadly and inextricably linked in our limited little world, it's a story of the horror of war and the horror that war can do to a person. It doesn't have a complicated plot, and, in the present time at least, not very much happens at all, but it is just so wonderfully executed. I don't have the knowledge of what it is to be insane, or obsessed, or to fight in a war, or even what it is like to want to fly, to be a bird, more than anything. But when I read Wharton's book I can feel and know without that knowledge what it is like to be Al or Birdy. And when I read it I'm as sure as I can be that Birdy is right - there is a huge difference between knowledge and knowing:

"There's open air in his song, the power of wings and the softness of feathers. He sings of things he could never have seen or known in the aviary at Mr Lincoln's. These things must be memories in his blood carried through in his song. There's the song of rivers and the sound of water and the song of fields and seeds in their natural places. It's a song I'll never forget... in the singing you let your mind go, not think, and it comes to you, clearer than words. It comes as if you'd thought it yourself. Listening to Alfonso that night I found out things I knew must be but I'd never known."

And just as Alfonso's song made Birdy feel so will Wharton's book make you feel. It's like the effect that the best poetry can have - whether it be the formal grace and elegance of Donne or Marvell, or the headlong, breathless rush of the opening lines of Howl - whether you can put that effect into words or not.

I say it a lot, I know, but Birdy is a beautiful book, it really is. It is somehow a true one. And I think you'll be enriched for reading it.

For another dreamy, cerebral book treating war in a slightly surreal way, try our review of Empire of the Sun, by J G Ballard.

Booklists.jpg Birdy by William Wharton is in the Top Ten Books For Your Auntie.

Booklists.jpg Birdy by William Wharton is in the Top Ten War Novels.

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Kate said:

y father recommended this book, and it made me cry, and meant much to me. I've also read Pride and Dad by the same author, and the movies that have been made of Dad and Birdy just don't quite do the books justice.

My father reckons he must have known Wharton (a pen name) - he describes the neighbourhoods my dad grew up in at the right time. My dad and his best friend figure that Wharton was a few years older, and went to the local Catholic school, but they spent many an entertaining hour trying to work it out. I don't think they ever did.

Magda said:

He became a massively cult author in Poland when I was a so called young adult. Together with John Irving and the like. But one tires after a while. I still think that this (and another of his war books, probably even more so, forgot the title now) were his best.

I thought it was rather silly to change the WW2 to Vietnam in the film, though.

Jill replied:

Me too on the film. Having said that, I'm a big fan of Alan Parker.