Book Review: Bird Life by Anna Smaill

January 4, 2024

Bird Life, the second novel by Booker Prize longlisted author Anna Smaill, bends beautifully into the genre of speculative fiction with stunning prose and captivating characters. Alternating between the perspectives of two protagonists, Dinah and Yasuko, Smaill invites her readers to intimately explore the experience of grief and loss, as well as the resilient power of connection and love. With vivid descriptions and vulnerable interiority, Bird Life reads as an ode to the human experience, laid bare in all of its nuance and complexity. It is a mirroring of grief and joy, love and loss, hope and despair—always side by side.

Dinah, an English language teacher who arrives in Japan from New Zealand, is deep in grief following the death of her twin brother, a troubled genius and prodigal pianist. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with Yasuko, a woman who is endowed with special powers that allow her to speak with the nonhuman world and see things others do not. When Yasuko’s powers recede—as they sometimes do—she is prone to falling into deep states of depression. Ultimately, it is this unreliability that causes her only son, Jun, to leave home—an act which devastates Yasuko. Between the emotionally-driven stories of Dinah and Yasuko, as well as the relationship they develop over the course of the novel, Smaill delicately portrays how we struggle to navigate the shadows of depression and grief, how “when you lose someone, you have to relearn everything. You have to learn the whole world all over again. But the world without that person in it.”

One of the most impressive aspects of Bird Life is the way in which it captures the shades of gray that permeate our day-to-day lives, revealing the world as a place that exists in diverse layers of perception and understanding. For readers, this aspect of the novel acts as an encouragement to remain curious and open-minded, an especially poignant revelation given our contemporary world wherein our vision is too often narrowed to only what is directly in front of our own eyes or spoken directly into our own ears. This push to look more closely, to see beneath the surface, comes most powerfully through the character of Yasuko, who at one point reflects that “whatever I am doing…there is more in the world than I can easily understand. It is to remind me that I always need to keep looking.” Yasuko sees the world and the people in it for what they are: complex.

Central as well to almost every page of Bird Life are the vivid descriptions of the places Dinah and Yasuko are traveling to and through. Even though I have never personally traveled to Japan, Smaill’s descriptions of Tokyo and its surrounding cities brought me there with creative gusto. Her descriptions don’t stop at sight—you smell, hear, and feel every aspect of the world she is painting. It is done with such tact that, in the midst of reading, you can smell the negi toro, the pastries from Mister Donut, or the animals and fish on the wooden shelves at Seibu; you can hear the notes that Michael is playing on the piano and the sounds of crows flapping their wings; you can feel the weight of carrying a child on your back throughout a dark night.

Lovers of authors like Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, Kelly Barnhill and Melody Razak will find that Smaill writes her scenes and characters with a similar, lyrical flair. Her words sing off the pages with the same intensity that her characters are “experiencing” them. The novel is rooted in an intimate exploration of lived experience and emotion, and the language matches this personalized perspective. At one point, at the height of her powers, Yasuko observes that “[e]very solitary thing was humming, vibrating, shaking in the wind of life that was both concentric and hyperactive.”  Such beautiful prose is a constant throughout the novel, and is absorbing and awe-inspiring in its composition.

In this current moment, when we find ourselves increasingly disconnected from those with whom we share this planet, Bird Life is a call to approach the world and all things in it with open eyes and an understanding, compassionate heart. It is a raw portrayal of what it means to live through the darkest moments of our lives and to make it through to the other side. Bird Life is arriving as an essential contribution to the literary world, and it is a novel that has something for every reader to connect to. I can only imagine that it will be read and studied for many years to come.

Publisher: Scribe US

Publication date: January 2, 2024

Reviewed by Justine Payton


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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