This is a bit of a difficult one to parse out my feelings: as a novel, Birdie has a lot of empathy and power in it, delving into an extremely human and complicated character that has had to deal with a lot of extremely difficult things. That is not to say that it is completely humorless, as there is some fun sprinkled into this book, but it is not exactly a fun read based on the subject matter. Yet, despite the voice being given towards a character representing an often underrepresented and uncared for group, this novel leaves some things to be desired in terms of the writing and clarity of it, sadly undermining a lot of the stronger aspects to it.
Birdie follows the story of a Canadian Cree-Métis woman from Alberta named Bernice, as she now has journeyed to Gibsons, British Colombia, the home of a beloved aboriginal tv star from The Beachcombers. This motivation to move to Gibsons, however, is a minor piece to this novel, as through memories and dreams, Bernice parses through her past and we see what she has faced throughout her life to come to this point here, whereupon she finds herself entering into almost a trance to try and heal from what she has been through. The author develops an engaging and complex image of modern aboriginal life, and how this affected Bernice’s choices and path she ends up taking. There is also a lot of inclusion of the spiritual aspects of Bernice’s culture, often coming in the form of dreams, spirit work, and even the inclusion of some language. But most vividly, especially in the later parts of the novel, is the inclusion of some of the stories of the women who surround Bernice in her life, creating a beautiful portrait of the strength and resilience of women, and the potential power of such relationships between them.
While on its own, the story of Bernice has all the ingredients to be captivating, heartbreaking, and powerful in all that it entails, the nature of the writing made all the difficult subject-matter even more difficult to get through: there is a dreamy quality to this novel where we spend a lot of time in Bernice’s head, and she weaves in and out of memories from different times almost without warning. I had a lot of trouble figuring out when and where things were occurring, and while I don’t mind non-linear stories, this one needed a lot more clarity.
Something I kept thinking, however, throughout this novel, is that while Lindberg (a Cree woman herself) works deftly to create a lot of empathy for Bernice (facing sexual assault at a young age, being institutionalized, having a complicated home life, being homeless for some time, etc), I can tell that this is still a character that a lot of people may not be able to get behind simple because she is an aboriginal woman who is not very personable: but that’s the whole point! She has been shaped by her experiences and those around her, and I find it pretty heartbreaking to even think about how someone has to work so hard to create a sympathetic character, but you still just know that people won’t be able to care for her despite this. And if this is what happens in fiction, can you imagine the reality and treatment of those for whom this story is almost reality?
Ultimately, Birdie is a novel that is very different from a lot of things that I have read before. It has a lot of meat to it, and the potential to be great, but the experience of the read was difficult which left a bit of an emptiness that I wish could have been ironed out a bit more. But as the debut novel from Lindberg, it shows that she is clearly not afraid to reach into deep subjects and to get voices across that are so often left unheard or uncared about.