In a Nutshell: Doran’s The China Bird is a real triumph, a literary classic which should be, and must be, eagerly consumed by readers of all tastes.
If you’ve been following my reading journal over the past couple of weeks then you would have seen me raving about The China Bird (links to specific entries can be found at the foot of these afterthoughts). With my ‘journey’ now at an end, it’s time to offer up my considered ‘afterthoughts’ on what I thought of the 2008 winner of the Hookline Novel Prize.
Although more detail can be gathered through reading my forethoughts post for this novel, I’ll begin with a brief summary on what The China Bird is all about:
Fundamentally The China Bird is a love story; a modern-day Beauty & the Beast tale if you will. Angela, a talented and aspiring young artist, is drawn to the beauty in deformity of Edward, a much older man, whose posture is twisted and contorted with the affects of Polio. What begins as a purely artist/model working relationship gradually develops into something a lot deeper, and much more emotionally complicated. Factor in the subsidiary relationships of the chief protagonists – Edward with his mother, Angela with her course tutor Alex (among others), and what one has in The China Bird is, what author Livi Michael exquisitely calls, ‘a novel that explores the precariousness of relationships’.
The story itself is superbly crafted, showing Doran to be a truly talented story-teller. The primary story thread i.e. the evolving relationship between artist and model, is the ‘keystone’ that underpins everything in The China Bird. It’s a complicated relationship, typical for literary fiction, but at no time is that complicity reflected in any difficulty with reading, or with comprehension of the story. Doran seems to hold the hand of the reader and lead him/her through on an uncomplicated yet profound path. And even when Doran starts to interject the narrative with flashbacks (a story-telling practice which can often be insanely difficult to keep track of), the only sense is that the story is being positively built upon and added to.
Of course any work of literary fiction can really only be as good as the characters who wander around its imagined landscape, and I’m pleased to say that Doran has triumphed in this respect too. She’s created a number of wholly engaging and fascinating characters. Her best creations are her primary characters – Angela and Edward, but even the characters in the more minor roles i.e. Edward’s mother Rachael, and Angela’s course supervisor Alex (both of whom you’ll love to hate – probably), are well-rounded and deep enough to be of significant interest.
The China Bird’s most magnificent character is without a doubt Edward . Whether Doran, during the course of writing this novel, has had direct contact with someone with similar physical disabilities to Edward, I’m not sure, but given the level of understanding and empathy she shows for this character, and his condition, it would strongly suggest she has.
Doran is superb in painting a man who has built up the defences to counter any abhorrence to his physical condition. Rather than seek sympathy, Doran has infused in Edward a desire to make those around him feel uncomfortable with his malformed presence. This transpires itself in Edward’s habitual display of bitterness and resentment toward others; a tough ‘shield’ which creates a ‘barrier’ to Edward being able to form positive and meaningful relationships.
As may be expected, Edward’s tough veneer can be chipped away at though, and this is demonstrated by Doran’s other principle character, the beautifully realised Angela, who uses a combination of charm and obstinate stubbornness (not to mention a bit of nakedness ), to break down Edward’s ‘defences’. Charismatic, confident and intelligent, Doran not only displays in Angela a sublime driving passion for art, but also a vulnerability, which juxtaposes her outwardly confident nature beautifully.
As far as any ‘downsides’ go, in all honesty there is little to fault with The China Bird; it really is that well accomplished. If I had to get picky, then on the very rare occasion the dialogue between characters can feel somewhat stilted; a little cliched maybe, especially in the instances when Edward bemoans his lot with regards to his disability.
Additionally, if I was getting even more pickier, then I’d also say that there exists the tiniest feeling that the closing chapters of The China Bird do not quite reach the same level of sublime dazzle that is so omnipresent in the earlier chapters, which makes them feel marginally rushed, or perhaps not as well considered. It should be made absolutely clear however, that this feeling is so negligible that it’s barely worth mentioning.
In summing up then I would say that The China Bird is a real triumph; a novel which should be eagerly consumed by readers of all tastes. In a work of fiction where the primary storyline focuses on deformity attracting beauty, it’s easy, as I did at the start of this review, to describe The China Bird as a modern-day Beauty and the Beast. Thinking back on it though, proffering such a epithet on The China Bird is to do it a real disservice. The depth and sublimity of Doran’s literary creation goes way beyond anything that a classic fairy tale could offer, making The China Bird stand out as a true classic in its own right.
I applaud Bryony Doran for creating a wonderful novel, and I pass on my abiding praise to those responsible for choosing The China Bird as the winner of the 2008 Hookline Novel Prize. You all have incredibly good taste.
Bookline and Thinker | 2007 | £8.99 | PAPERBACK | 348 PP | ISBN: 978-09555630-2-7