Bird Life

Anna Smaill

Bird Life
Scribe Publications
9 January 2024

Bird Life

Anna Smaill

In Ueno Park, Tokyo, as workers and tourists gather for lunch, the pollen blows, a fountain erupts, pigeons scatter, and two women meet, changing the course of one another's lives.

Dinah has come to Japan from New Zealand to teach English and grieve the death of her brother, Michael, a troubled genius who was able to channel his problems into music as a classical pianist - until he wasn't. In the seemingly empty, eerie apartment block where Dinah has been housed, she sees Michael everywhere, even as she feels his absence sharply.

Yasuko is polished, precise, and keenly observant - of her students and colleagues at the language school, and of the natural world. When she was thirteen, animals began to speak to her, to tell her things she did not always want to hear. She has suppressed these powers for many years, but sometimes she allows them to resurface, to the dismay of her adult son, Jun. One day, she returns home, and Jun has gone. Even her special gifts cannot bring him back.

As these two women deal with their individual trauma, they form an unlikely friendship in which each will help the other to see a different possible world, as Smaill teases out the tension between our internal and external lives and asks what we lose by having to choose between them.


Bird Life is a profoundly poignant and mesmerising second novel from Booker Prize-nominated Anna Smaill. Set in Tokyo, the novel follows two women, Dinah and Yasuko, who are dealing with trauma from recent loss. Dinah is haunted by the sudden death of her prodigy twin brother, from whom she was inseparable. Driven by impulse and guilt, she leaves New Zealand to take an English teaching position at a Japanese university. Yasuko is a less ‘ordinary’ creature, as Dinah describes her. She’s a woman with unexplainable powers, born out of her trauma and loss, and Dinah is drawn to her otherworldly perfection. Dinah’s misery is like a beacon that Yasuko’s powers latch onto, and the novel truly comes alive when the two women meet.

Smaill’s previous experience in fantasy writing is demonstrated through vivid and lyrical prose that evokes the beauty and slight terror of a descent into madness – backdropped by the mundane demands of life in a large city. Tokyo is beautifully brought to life, likely attributable to Smaill’s experiences in the city, serving as the perfect, steady companion to the two characters’ mentality.

Bird Life is a deliberately character-driven story. It’s often slow in moments and confusing for a reader going back and forth between two deeply unreliable narrators. However, even in its weaker moments, Smaill’s thoughtful and immersive prose is delightful to read, and the untrustworthiness of it all contributes to the mystique. Its strongest and most memorable moments are in simpler scenes, with characters bouncing off one another and coming to their reckonings with grief and loss, the depth of their love for their families, and the fear they have for the violence grief and love can bring.

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