Death: I know, or I think I know that death will only be nothingness, but I don’t want oblivion yet. I want to smell honeysuckle in the dark, I want to hear my cat greet me with her special purring new. I want to smell old books.
So speaks 12-year old Gussie, in a rare moment of frustration – a child on the brink of adolescence, longing for life but waiting patiently for a heart-lung transplant. She has a maturity beyond her years. She is, of necessity, self-taught. Unconstricted by the school syllabus, she has a wonderful depth of knowledge, listing among her top 10 books Middlemarch, The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield and The House at Pooh Corner.
As adorable as she is for her love of literature, it’s Gussie’s love of nature and her curiosity for the world surrounding her that adds a literary dimension to this novel. Her observations regarding the pet cats, wild birds, spiders, lizards and insects are not only educational, but an object lesson in descriptive writing. The trials of the young seagull on the roof as he learns to fly are humorous and yet, within a sentence the mood completely changes:
I feel like that young gull: songless and ugly, unable to fly: totally dependent on my parent.
My personal favourite:
Umbrellas go up and are blown inside out like ravens squabbling.
The Bower Bird of the title is Gussie herself. Her bower, her room in the attic which she decorates with trinkets and sea-shells and bird feathers in an attempt to attract the love of her life: Brett, a school friend who shares her fascination with birds. He is also a bit of a heartthrob and Gussie has a rival: Siobhan upon whom Gussie heaps much (warranted) invective throughout the course of her frustrated wooing.
Given her problems, she maintains her equilibrium remarkably well. experiencing only rare moments of depression due to her health. Although she is too sick to experience adolescent denial, she is still determined to enjoy the time she has.
Being alive is a bit like speed-reading. I have to experience everything, pack it in while there is still time.
Gussie’s sadness stems from the breakup of her family. Her father is not on the scene, having left her mother for a younger woman, TLE (The Lovely Eloise) and Gussie feels his departure keenly. Her relationship with him is reduced to a number of telephone conversations for despite her life-threatening condition, he doesn’t make time to visit. And it’s heartbreaking to listen to the excuses that Gussie makes for him, even blaming his leaving on her sickness. (She’s too young to make the rat analogy.)
Her relationship with her mother is fortunately heartwarming. Her mother is 51, therefore old (!). And Gussie’s eyes miss nothing and her observations are a little close to the bone, particularly when her mother strikes up a new romantic relationship. In a reversal of generations, Gussie would rather her mother wore less makeup and shorter skirts!
I found this novel highly-original in many ways and have only one small criticism, regarding the use of the new-word-of-the-day device. Isn’t it something that’s overused in fiction these days (or is it just me?) That said, these are Gussie’s words and she is an auto-didact. So the device does have a legitimate place in Kelley’s novel. Not only that, one of the words brought back my own adolescent experience. Gussie’s headmistress calls her a sophisticate. Looking up the dictionary definition is shocking …..
The Bower Bird is the sequel of Kelley’s 2005 debut The Burying Beetle, though it is successful as a stand-alone read. A worthy winner of the 2007 Costa Children’s Novel award, I would suggest it is a strong contender for the overall Book of the Year award.