Dead Birds – Trevor Shearston

9780733320903, ABC Books, September 2007First published in the August 2007 issue of BOOKSELLER + PUBLISHER magazine (c) 2007 Thorpe-Bowker (a division of RR Bowker LLC)

A New Guinean tribesman is killed by a spirit with lightning (a white man with a gun). His head is preserved in a jar and it’s from this point of view that the reader experiences the goings-on of the ‘spirits’ on board a moving animal (boat). The concept is original and would have worked brilliantly as a short story. Unfortunately, as a novel it is frustrating. The head hears all languages onboard but he still does not understand certain words. At first this is an interesting game for the reader, but after a while, guessing is tiring. Also, the Naturalist and his ethnic crewmates are interesting characters, but the reader can only glimpse them as interpreted in a wondering way by the head. The head cannot go ashore, or even see far over the side of the boat and it’s frustrating to not be able to follow the other characters – collecting rare birds, fleeing, gathering food. Obviously the author has something to say about credibility in history, and race relations. His maintenance of point of view and voice throughout is commendable, but it just doesn’t feel like enough. A work with multiple points of view may have developed plot and character and still explored the concept. Recommended only to those who enjoy a narrative challenge.

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