How to Make A Bird
by Martine Murray
Published by Allen and Unwin
139 pages, 2003
Buy it online
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
The bird of the title is a wooden one carved for the heroine, Mannie (Manon) Clarkeson, by her kind, gentle boyfriend, Harry Jacob. There is certainly a "flying" theme in the novel, which starts with a pair of wings left out to scare birds away from the neighbor's apples and with Mannie zooming along the road on her bicycle, wearing her mother's totally inappropriate red silk dress, to catch the early train from her home in regional Victoria to Melbourne. She has two important visits to make there, after which she isn't sure she will go home. It ends with an imagined scene where she is dancing on air with her boyfriend.
The framing story takes place over 48 hours but most of it -- which gradually explains why she took the trip in the first place -- is told in flashback. Mannie is out to "find herself" and make some decisions about her life, after the loss of her beloved brother, which is somehow linked with her tempestuous French mother's abandonment of the family.
The story of a teenager's journey to find him/herself goes back at least to The Catcher In The Rye and remains a popular theme. A teen girl's trouble relating to her mother is also a common theme for young adult fiction. In this case, the mother seems to be genuinely disturbed. Her unkind treatment of her gentle husband is as much of an issue as the fact that she makes her daughter's life difficult. But Mannie's father loves his wife enough to accept her behavior and try to help her. Even his mother, now in a nursing home, feels pity for her daughter-in-law, who hadn't liked her much, and is able to make Mannie see her mother through different eyes.
In fact, it takes a day and a night in Melbourne to enable Mannie to see her family's troubles in general from a different perspective and come to terms with them. The red dress is connected with her image of her mother. By the end of the book, the dress is shabby and the silly silver shoes she bought to go with it are gone. More importantly, Mannie has let her mother -- and her resentments -- go and is ready to return to her mild father and her boyfriend, who has nothing to prove to anyone.
Flashback can work if it's woven carefully into the framing story. That doesn't always seem to happen in this novel, which takes place mostly in the heroine's head. It takes three chapters for Mannie to get from Flinders Street Station in Melbourne to the suburb of Brunswick where, we learn eventually, she wants to visit her grandmother at the nursing home. The second half of the novel flows very well, and is deeply moving, but before we reach it, there are a number of scenes which start in the novel's present and move suddenly, almost without warning, into flashback mode. The scene at Flinders Street is the most jarring. The first paragraph tells the reader why she doesn't like the station, mentions briefly that someone is playing guitar for coins there and then plunges straight into the past, with a brief mention -- for linking purposes -- of the fact that her boyfriend plays guitar, then onwards in the past.
The story seems to be set in the 1970s, with mention of going to see Star Wars on a date. There is probably a reason for this, but I am unaware of what that might be; the themes are universal and it could just as easily take place in the present.
Martine Murray is starting to make her name in Australian children's and young adult fiction. This is the author's first young adult novel after two picture books and an illustrated children's novel, The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley, which was shortlisted for Australian Children's Book of the Year in 2003 and has already been sold to the United States. It will be interesting to see where this one goes. | September 2003
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.