Birdy by William Wharton

I really enjoyed this novel – I think it’s brilliant. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages as my Mum recommended it and it turns out it’s pretty relevant to what I’ll be studying at uni this year too. ‘Birdy’ tells the story of two friends’ experiences of the Second World War and how brutally they are affected, both physically and mentally. The novel also interrogates our perceptions of what it means to be “crazy”; what does the word actually mean and is it something you become, or something that is ingrained within certain people?

The novel is narrated in separate sections by each of the protagonists, Al Columbato and Birdy. Al is visiting Birdy in an institution for people who have been ‘mentally damaged’ by the war, his own face covered in bandages from the injuries he has suffered. Both look back on their shared childhood and their passage into adulthood with Al trying to ‘bring Birdy back’ by remembering the things they used to do together. It is a touching and powerful narrative which really gets you thinking. It is also funny and, especially Al’s no-nonsense narration style, makes it really enjoyable to read.

Throughout his childhood, Birdy is obsessed with birds. Firstly he and Al breed homing pigeons but when Al loses interest and Birdy’s mother intervenes, Birdy moves on to canaries. Soon Birdy’s reality becomes blurred with the lives of his canaries and Wharton demonstrates how when somebody is different they are easily labelled as “crazy”. My only criticism of the novel would be that sometimes the sections about the canaries seem to drag on for slightly too long, however these passages show the depth with which Birdy has become absorbed into the lives of his birds and become distanced from his own. I feel that Wharton asks you to assess the way you perceive Birdy; is his behaviour crazy or is it simply different from society’s norms? This particularly apparent in one episode when Birdy bunks off school and spends much of his day sitting up in a tree. His parents are angry but don’t believe him when he says what he has been doing and Birdy wonders what it is they want him to have been doing, if they don’t believe the truth. Birdy’s passion for canaries is set alongside Al’s love of sport and boxing, something which is fuelled by a desire to ‘beat’ his father. Birdy’s love of birds is defined simply as an ‘obsession’ by his peers and his parents but why is Al’s hobby not treated in the same way? What is it that makes the two things different?

The ending of the novel is my favourite part, which is not something that can be said of a lot of books, where sometimes a great book is let down by its anticlimactic denouement. We never really learn what actually happened to Birdy but Al tells Birdy about his own experience and I think this section is what makes it one of the best books about war that I have read. Although I have no experience of war myself, somehow what Al describes seems full of truth and honesty about the realities of combat.

There are some fantastic quotes in the novel – one that seems particularly poignant to me is:

We’re crazy because we can’t accept the idea that things happen for no reason at all and that it doesn’t mean anything  … there’s no end to the absurd things people will do trying to make life mean something.

I would definitely recommend this novel. Its treatment of madness is insightful and thought-provoking. I’m now really interested to try another of Wharton’s novels.

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