Steve Gay’s The Birds That Do Not Sing is a compelling family drama, alternating between modern-day and wartime Rugby. We first meet narrator Jim Brown as an elderly man. He’s managed to track down the concrete elephant sculpture made by his father before the war; it’s now in the front garden of a house in the centre of town. The elephant sculpture has always had a hold over him, he says. It’s as he gets talking to the house’s residents, journalist Harry and his wife Carol, that the narrative rewinds and we meet Jim as a young boy. He’s lying in bed, listening to the sounds of the Heinkel and Junkers flying overheard. Waiting for the All Clear.
This is how the story unspools. A few minutes in Harry’s study; days, weeks, years in wartime Rugby. We know there’s trauma waiting in the wings, that some cast members might not make it through to the final act. The Brown family of the 1940s are unconventional, have progressive ideas about politics, religion and conflict, and much of young Jim’s narration is spent reconciling these views with the world around him. He compares his father’s socialism, his brother’s pacifism, to the views of his neighbours, and begins to form his own.
It’s in these reflective passages that Gay’s writing really shines. Elderly Jim has spent his working life as an engineer; when revisiting a memory, he’ll ‘hold it up to the light, blow away the swarf, check that it’s true.’ The conversations he revisits, the portraits of family members he draws, are precise and scrutinised for balance. Characters painted as villains in the first act cast a different shadow later. Elderly Jim is trying to make sense of his memories, clear the noise in his head. In many ways, he’s still waiting for that elusive All Clear.
Jim’s voice is assured and flows beautifully. It can’t be easy, telling the story from the point of an eighty-odd year-old man and a young boy, particularly when they’re supposed to be the same person, seventy-five years apart. And yet, Gay manages to tint the old man’s perspective with just enough vigour, the young boy’s with just enough wisdom, to convincingly unite them.
“Authority of voice is a hard concept to define in writing, but one knows it when one sees it, and it is to be found in all the little details of The Birds that do not Sing,” says Tim Leach, author of Smile of the Wolf, a Sunday Times historical novel of the year. “A world is built, filled with characters that are always compelling and convincing as they try to mend the broken pieces of their lives.”
Based on the wartime experiences of Gay’s own father, The Birds That Do Not Sing, is a meticulously-researched, warmly-written novel about family and the failure to tell the stories that set people free. Guilt hangs heavy over both halves of the story and this too is a strength of the novel. Like the concrete elephant in the garden, some truths are non-negotiable. They can’t be eroded by time or goodwill. Gay doesn’t shy away from making his characters think hard and suffer deeply. And yet the feeling of the novel is hopeful. Storytelling is hard, Jim seems to show us, but it’s necessary. Like oiling the breaks, like servicing an engine, it can get messy, but it’s an essential part of running smoothly.
Hold it up to the light, blow away the swarf, check that it’s true.
Click here to buy The Birds That Do Not Sing as an ebook from Amazon. You can follow Steve Gay on Facebook and Instagram. You can also check out his author profile on the Rook Abbey Press Website.
About the Reviewer
Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She works as a digital copywriter and is writing a novel. You can find her interviews with authors on her blog and follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.