Mattis and his older sister Hege live in a lakeside cottage in a rural community in Norway. Hege, a 40-year-old spinster who has taken care of Mattis all her life, is earning a meager living by knitting sweaters, while Mattis is unable to contribute due to his mental disabilities. When the lumberjack Jorgen moves in with them, it becomes clear that they can’t go on as before.
This is a deceptively simple story, with a straightforward plot and only a handful of characters. Mattis’s inner world, however, is rich. There is a lot of frustration and shame, even small victories are few and far between but are celebrated intensely, and his isolation is crushing. He thinks too much, asking questions about the state of the world until his mind gets all jumbled which keeps him from finishing any task. He cannot communicate his thoughts to the “clever ones”, as he calls everyone else, and this raises an invisible wall around him that keeps him from forming any kind of meaningful connection. The relationship with his sister is complicated, too, and often strained because duty and responsibility weigh heavily on Hege, while Mattis is terrified of her leaving because he knows that he cannot survive on his own.
Nature also plays an important part in Mattis’s life becauses he looks to it for the meaning that otherwise escapes him. Unfortunately, however, bad omens begin to pile up around him. He sees a woodcock that flies directly over the cottage at night as a sign of a change for the better, until it is shot down by a hunter, and a strange, unidentifiable bird is exciting but also vaguely ominous. When one of two aspens near the cottage that are named after the siblings is hit by lightning, Mattis identifies it as another portent; only he isn’t sure whether it is his or Hege’s fate that is sealed. Thunderstorms in general frighten him intensely, but on the other hand, he loves rowing on the large lake in a leaky boat which is actually a much bigger danger to him.
Mattis is a complex character whose inner world is much different from what people see on the outside. This inability to articulate himself and to make others understand is the crux of his problems, and it makes for compelling reading. There is no romanticizing of his condition and Hege is not made out as some sort of villain because her plight and the weight she has to carry are obvious; she makes the best of their lot in life and supports Mattis as well as she can, but there are limits to anyone’s ability to self-sacrifice. The Birds is a great book, and one that is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
CBR13 Bingo: Rep