'Birdy' by Jess Vallance

"Do you know, I met a family in Brazil who called every one of their children Frances. Two girls, and then Francis with an i for the three boys. 'It's our favourite name,' the parents said when we asked about it. That was all there was to it as far as they were concerned. How brilliant is that?"

And so we meet Alberta 'Bert' Fitzroy-Black, the star of Birdy. One of them, anyway: Jess Vallance's first novel has plenty of memorable characters. Bert is the charming eccentric around whom the story is centered. She is a brilliant creation, leaping off the page, full of life and vim.

I'm just going to let the cat out of the bag: this is a recommendation as much as a review. I loved this book. But that puts me in a difficult position. It's not so much the story which makes Birdy so special, but the way it's told. The way the twist drops, the way the reader's perception incrementally changes until they go "Oh, right, that's what it's about, then". I can't say much about that without ruining it - and because I want you to read Birdy, I really don't want to ruin it.

The basic plot is simple and tight, a nicely crafted high school drama with a big finish. But the storytelling is top-drawer stuff: the way so much of the story is carried by the voice, how the narrative style creates character and story just as much as the plot; the way the reader's perception hardens throughout the story.

The blurb doesn't give much away, so I found reading the book to be a pleasant process of discovery, mystery a constant feature. What kind of story is this I'm reading? Is it going to be supernatural? Romance? Crime? Every time you think you get it, it changes. In the end I'd class it as a "psychological thriller" (whatever that means). I think it's all about paranoia, obsession and loneliness. At least, those are the themes that spoke to me (should I be worried about that?!).

I do have some minor criticisms, though they shouldn't stop you adding this book to your list. Frances' grandfather's illness goes unnamed (unless I missed it), and I feel like a bit more could have been done there. I stumbled over a couple of inconsistencies. The most problematic being a key plot point involving a can of spray paint. Although the narrative later calls out the discrepancy, I didn't really buy it. Minor mis-steps, both. On a more personal, subjective note, I would have liked the ending to have been a bit more open. The final chapter wraps everything up nice and tight - but I think it would have been a stronger finish if some mysteries remained. Allowed the reader to draw their own conclusions. But that's just me, and since this is a Young Adult story, perhaps the completeness is more fitting.

The great constant and regular joy throughout this subtly shifting story is Vallance's writing style. It's smooth, entertaining, thoughtful, witty. Some of her mannerisms are already creeping into my writing, aren't they? Which is no bad thing. But it's not just the style that works - there's substance too:

"If my time with Bert taught me anything, it's that it's the differences that are important. It's like a jigsaw, I suppose. To fit together you've got to be different. If you got two jigsaw pieces that were exactly the same, they'd bump up against each other and never sit comfortably at all."

How brilliant is that?

Birdy is available from Amazon.co.uk

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