Anna Smaill

Bird Life

234mm x 153mm
Publication date:
9 November 2023

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Longlisted for the 2024 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction

NZ Listener Best Books of 2023


Bird Life, the second novel by Booker Prize longlisted author Anna Smaill, is a lyrical and ambitious exploration of madness and what it is like to experience the world differently.

In Ueno Park, Toyko, 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 traumas, 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 marvel. A beautifully lyrical tale of loss, grief, and madness, whose central characters are so deftly drawn that you find yourself breathlessly following them down. Magically strange yet horribly real.' —Mat Osman, author of The Ghost Theatre

'Bird Life is an astonishing book about grief, beauty and survival… the writing enters your bloodstream like a strange and wonderful drug.' —Emily Perkins, author of Lioness and The Forrests

'Smaill has created a kind of aria on the slippery madness of grief. . . . There is delicate lyrical beauty, precise detail and stark contrasts, like the strange shack of the animal vendor on the roof of the luxury department store where Yasuko goes to find birds and beetles for her rituals.' —Ruth Spencer, Kete Books

Praise for The Chimes

'Fresh and original . . . Subverting the beauty of music into a force of agony and destruction is a daring gambit, while the wider premise of the novel – that a society must retain a diverse shared past if it is to have a cohesive future – is cleverly orchestrated and poignantly conveyed throughout.' —Catherine Taylor, Guardian

‘To call The Chimes striking is I dare say to underplay what might be the most distinctive debut of the decade. Certainly, Smaill’s experience as a poet come through clearly in her perfectly poised prose. There’s a real richness to her images; a depth to her descriptions; her dialogue practically sparkles; and the structure of the whole thing sings.’ —Niall Alexander,

‘The novel is hypnotic, melancholic, and requires concentration, but it builds to an incredibly tense and emotionally satisfying climax that rewards all the effort.’ —Elle Magazine

Anna Smaill is the author of The Chimes, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won best novel in the World Fantasy Awards in 2016, and the poetry collection The Violinist in Spring (2005). Born in Auckland, she has spent several years in Japan and the United Kingdom and holds a PhD from the University of London. She lives on Wellington’s south coast with her husband, novelist Carl Shuker, and their two children. Bird Life is her second novel.

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