Short Story Review: ‘Millie and Bird’

Story Title: Millie and Bird
Collection/Anthology?: Not applicable. Available for free download (PDF format) from the Costa Short Story Award website.
Briefly: It’s summer and the narrator has just turned sixteen. It’s also a particularly memorable time for the young woman because she’s fallen in love for the first time. And although thoughts of her boyfriend keep coming to the forefront of her mind, her attention is firmly fixed on her alcoholic mother, and on looking out for her little sister, Millie.

Afterthoughts: This is a very readable story that centres on the theme of living with an alcoholic parent and the ebb and flow that comes with it. There is no father in this family unit so both girls have to reach out for the stability in others that the mother fails to provide.

The girls have one another of course, and they also have their neighbour – the appropriately named Jonty Angel – who acts as a guardian figure. And with her older sister finding comfort in having a first boyfriend, Millie finds friendship in a young zebra finch gifted to her from Jonty.

Using these tenuous relationship anchors to ground themselves, it looks as though the girls can survive the bad days with their mother, and sure enough they wake up the following morning to find that their mother is in a more positive and upbeat mood. With the mother in this better frame of mind, a chink of optimism begins to emerge, and the sisters dare to hope that the situation is improving. It soon becomes clear however that this day is just another of these temporary ‘happy family days’, which causes one of the daughters to react in dramatic fashion, bringing the story to an unexpected and punchy conclusion.

All in all a well constructed tale, but given the subject matter I’d have expected the story to have come with more emotional charge. The author has instead chosen to take a more subtle approach, and while this works it only does so to a limited extent. What I would like to see is Millie and Bird stretched out to novel length because I think there is still a lot of mileage to be found in every one of this story’s characters.

Notable quote: ‘Why don’t I make you a cup of tea Mum? See if there’s anything on the radio, a
concert or something? There might be a play on.’ I say.

As if she doesn’t hear me she goes to the sideboard, opens the door and reaches inside to the stash she keeps behind the pile of old records we’re not allowed to touch. She lifts it out like she’s won a raffle, like it’s a surprise, like she didn’t know
there was a half-full bottle of vodka there. She pours herself a mug, holds it up and smiles like she doesn’t ever need to be put to bed, or ever get sick, or rant and rave about it all being our fault.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

costa_book_awards75 This story was read as preparation for casting a vote for the 2012 Costa Short Story Award. In all, six stories were selected by the award panel before being put to the public vote. All stories were presented without note of the author, so that each story would be judged on merit alone. For further details, please visit the Costa Short Story Award website.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).