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A perfect little gem – The Strange Bird by Jeff Vandermeer

The Strange Bird – A Borne Story, by Jeff Vandermeer (Paperback; publisher: MCD x FSG Originals; Feb. 27 2018; 128 pages. Kindle edition released Dec. 3, 2019)

The Strange Bird is a little gem of a novel. Every carefully chosen word is just right. Each image is like a painting, glowing with detail. It is also sad, strange, and at the end, transcendently hopeful. It is comment on what constitutes “home”, and what is at the core of each person’s subconscious. What is love, and how much will we give up and let go of to regain lost love? It is amazing that Vandermeer could’ve packed so much meaning into such a little book. In the dedication, he thanks writer Sjón for letting him borrow one of Sjón’s blue foxes, a reference to Sjón’s novel, The Blue Fox.  And indeed, the “Strange Bird” with her magnificently coloured wings is wonderful, but so are the little ghost foxes that are the Strange Bird’s only companions and that keep her alive when she is captured. And Vandermeer’s descriptions of these animals are just delightful:

“So she sang back silently to them, as a comfort, there in the cell, and when the moonlight lay thick and bright against the gritty cheek of the sand dune, the foxes would gambol and prance for the sheer delight of it and beckon her to join them, would let her into their minds that she might know what it was to gambol and prance on those four legs, then these four legs, to see the world from a fox’s level. It was almost like flying. Almost.” (p. 24)

Contrasted with this image are the descriptions of the awful things the “Magician” does to the bird in the ruined and dangerous city. The setting is the same post-apocalyptic planet and characters as in Vandermeer’s previous novel, Borne. Here are again the Magician; “Mord”, the great flying bear; “Borne”, the creature found by the rebels “Wick” and “Rachel”, and the murdering gangs of feral children. But you don’t have to have read Borne in order to understand the story, since it is about classic themes, common to all people, all living things.

“‘The seeds of me are the seeds of you,’ the Strange Bird said. Something Sanji had told her, whether in a dream or in the lab, she could not remember. The Magician did not miss a beat. ‘Well, that may or may not be true, but you are the one undergoing transformation. Without an anesthetic, dear. But you are a made thing, as I am not, so you shouldn’t need it.’” (p. 62)

The Strange Bird eventually survives only because someone loved her deeply, and because the little foxes speak to the compass – or piece of code – buried deep inside her bio-tech, lab-created, human-bird-body. But where does the compass drive her to go to? What is waiting for her? The story is so short that to tell anything more will spoil the deeply satisfying ending.

The last paragraphs in the book are so well written, so tender, that it made the hair on my neck stand on end. I was getting goosebumps, and at the same time, swallowing great big lumps in my throat. Me, crying? No, I must’ve gotten some onion on my hands while I was cooking.

Sometimes Vandermeer’s syntax makes the text sound old-fashioned, even a bit like the repeating, rhythmic cadence of fairy tales. But it all slips through the mind of the reader like snowflakes dropping to the ground. What remains is the impression of wanting to reread it, of wanting to keep and think about some of the ideas.

It’s a gem, this one. Give yourself a Christmas present and get it.


About the book:  In the Acknowledgements, Vandermeer says “…As with The Southern Reach Trilogy, I will give a percentage of any royalties I receive from The Strange Bird to environmental charities.” Need any more motivation to go get it?


About the header and illustration: Bird wings by Albrecht Dürer, 21 May 1471 to 6 April 1528, “Wing of a European Roller” (top) and “Nemesis”.

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