Anna’s Smaill’s latest novel Bird Life is set in the precisely rendered here and now of present-day mundane and utterly unromantic Tokyo: “…the dry cleaner, the apartment buildings with their futons hanging over the balconies, women carrying their purses, the optometrist with the free machine to wash your spectacles. Crows. Plane trees. The smell of melon bread.”
The characters are few and the emphasis is on the internal and the emotional. And yet, despite this grounding in convenience stores, shabby apartment buildings, suburban trains and the mundane, Smaill suggests – and her characters experience – worlds beyond the rational.
Dinah is a New Zealander teaching English to Japanese undergraduate engineering and science students at a Tokyo university. (My own experience of lecturing on New Zealand life and culture – oh my God – to Chinese students a few years ago met with exactly the implacable indifference that Smaill describes.) Dinah lives in a bleak and seemingly empty apartment block, “surrounded by concrete and clad in more concrete, pink and stuccoed … long and squat, like the egg casing of a huge insect”.
She catches a gruelling two trains and a bus to her classes where human contact – both with students and with teachers both local and imported — is perfunctory and impersonal. Her existence is joyless and muffled: “The world had offered itself to the girl, as it does to everyone. Here is tempura, it had said; here is silk. Here are tree geckos and fireworks and paper fans. Here is Juyondai sake. Here are the Bach cello suites. Here is Alexander McQueen. Here is the Icelandic language. Here is Tadao Ando and Antoni Gaudi. Offered this richness, the girl had chosen instead a small room in an empty apartment block in a foreign city. She had chosen a six pack of aloe yogurt, a bowl of instant ramen, and a chuhai tallboy. She had chosen sleeplessness in the park, and grief.”
Yasuko is a teacher at the same school although at the start of the novel they have not met. Both women carry a burden – Dinah the loss of her twin brother Michael, Yasuko the withdrawal of her son Jun.
The two women encounter Ueno Park at a time of mutual desperation: “A young foreign woman was lying on the ground in the grass beneath one of the large zelkovas. Something in her position suggested collapse rather than repose … It was quite an awful thing to behold that anguish … Passers-by had observed the girl – of course they had. The couples and families stepped politely around her.”
But Yasuko stops.
There is, therefore, an initial patina of psychological realism to the narrative – the grief and the accommodation of loss the two women are struggling with are aided by friendship and human contact. Yasuko sympathises and interprets Dinah’s exhaustion: “When you lose someone,” she tells her, “you have to relearn everything. You have to learn the whole world over again. But the world without that person in it. That takes a lot of energy, and a very long time.” In similar fashion Dinah works to heal the rift between Yasuko and her son Jun: “The thought of doing something, helping her friend, made the city suddenly cohere around her. It came into focus, into shape.”
As this suggests, the narrative’s precise and detailed grounding in the real is deceptive. As Yasuko observes of herself, “Routine was a kind of second order magic”, a daily performance as if the world were simple and open. In fact, the world wobbles, for the sad, for the bereaved, and for the attentive reader. Smaill asks us to pay attention to the tears and slips in the normal, the moments at which, as Yasuko puts it, “Everything shifted. Just for a second, the word broke loose from its bearings, and she was alone in it.”
When Yasuko was 13 – a gifted child, the delight of her scientist father – things changed. As she describes it, she “came into her powers”, signalled by a conversation with a cat: “The first moment of her gift had a heavy quality, almost a dullness. It was the quality of inevitability. The cat’s face moved, twitched. Yasuko flinched.
“When the cat spoke to her, the voice it used was her own voice, as if this might moderate her shock.
“‘Silly girl’, the cat said. ‘Why don’t you pull your socks up? You look like a slattern.’”
Not a fantastically rewarding beginning and in fact Yasuko’s intermittent communion with animal and bird world – cats, beetles, crows, fish — seems frustratingly opaque and unhelpful. “If you keep sharpening the blade you will blunt it. If you keep filling the bowl without drinking, it will overbrim and stain the tatami,” the fish tells her, sayings that she recognises come from the I Ching. Beetles are unpromisingly taciturn. More helpfully she is told by a peacock, “Remain alert. We’re sending you a girl.”
Is Yasuko’s experience of this slippage, her ‘powers’, the recurring communication with the animal world, a product of an unstable mind? Certainly this is the view of her dismayed father, and, despite his love for her, of her estranged son. Or does she have a special insight into aspects of the world normally unseen? A familiar conundrum: are the mad mad or do they see more clearly than the so-called sane? Yasuko has resisted attempts by her father to ‘cure’ her, even though her powers are as much a burden as a gift which is both to be embraced and controlled.
At the end of one episode, she reflects: “And so the danger passed. Things returned to normal. The world’s strangeness was held back by the ordinary routines of the day. Which was, after all, what she had built them for.”
In a similar fashion, the presence – the ‘ghost’ – of Michael begins appearing to Dinah, comfortable company, tangibly, almost physically real, going someway to assuaging the guilt she feels about his death: “The light gradually ebbed. In the shadow, Dinah saw Michael’s bulk. He sat on the faux-wood shelf that she employed as a desk, bookshelf and storage unit. He sat very close to her open laptop. She did not know if he was heavy, by what arrangement he managed his physical manifestation.
“‘Please don’t break my laptop,’ she said.”
He seems real. Is he a projection of her desire and loss? If so the comforting nature of their conversations could be seen as a metaphor for her own self-healing. But the narrative allows – encourages — the reader to move into a world in which these apparitions may be believable and more real than the arid and alien landscape that surrounds both women. The novel’s epigraph is from The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: “In life, in order to understand the world, you must die at least once. So it’s better to die young, when there’s still time left to recover.” The movement from death to recovery is evident in the trajectory of both Dinah and Yasuko.
One of the problems with the novel form is the conclusion. In a realist novel it must be recognised that life is untidy and stories that purport to convey the real in some sense or another – even reality with talking beetles – are not easily resolved. An A.S. Byatt novel, Still Life, ends with the narrator saying words to the effect that our characters’ situation, their dilemma, didn’t conclude here but as went on like this for a while we might as well stop now. The end. Bird Life’s conclusion is more evasive – and not all together satisfactory. The trajectory that Dinah and Yasuko take, their restorative friendship, and the illumination that they jointly and severally reach may be healing but it is not, in either case, resolutely conclusive. But in a novel of such delicate complexity, this is perhaps to be expected.
Bird Life by Anna Smaill (Te Herenga Waka Press, $38) is available in bookstores nationwide.
https://newsroom.co.nz/2023/11/16/the-woman-who-talked-with-beetles/ The woman who talked with beetles