There is the secret of Birdy’s dead grandmother’s cat. How the boys tortured it and Birdy Flynn had to drown her in the river to stop her suffering. There’s the secret of Mrs. Cope, the popular teacher, who touched Birdy in the cupboard. The secret of the gypsy girl at school who Birdy likes, but she can’t tell anyone. Because Birdy’s other secret is that while she plays and fights as good at the boys, she is a girl, and she doesn’t always feel like a girl is supposed to.
Her beloved Irish mother has her own troubles, as does the rest of her rowdy family. So Birdy decides to do what she feels she has to – hold onto her secrets and try and become what others want, even if it means suffering, and the risk of losing herself.
In this luminescent, sad and funny portrayal of a girl growing up amid an imperfect family, Helen Donohoe has created a beautifully nuanced and deeply felt novel. Whatever their own story, every reader will recognize in Birdy their own struggle to find their place in the world.
by Helen Donohoe
In an ever more complex and changing world do we have a right to be happy, to be well, to have an equal chance? Across the political ideologies there are very varied answers to the above. However, in order to get to the root issues behind those questions I would argue that we must start with a person’s right to be heard. To have their story listened to and understood.
That should never be taken for granted. Every day, young people, and most acutely, the most vulnerable young people, live their lives in obscurity and effective silence. Their stories are not told. A hard working social worker might record their case study. A kind foster carer might listen through the night when they are eventually ready to talk. However those stories; of pain, struggle, heartache and childhoods stained by neglect, are not part of our mainstream daily talk.
Sadly, literature has reflected that imbalance throughout history. A massively disproportionate array of books written about elite, university aspiring (or educated), white, suburban, heterosexual males. Stories about the struggle to find oneself. But finding oneself within the context of expectant middle class parents is profoundly different from the struggle to avoid herion addiction, avoid the gangs that prey on children in care, avoid starvation and perpetual harm. I believe the latter is far more interesting, and possibly a good deal harder to write.
Perhaps the scarcity of that type of writing is a reflection of the people who sit down to write. The situation is made worse because so few people have the financial resources to pursue a life of writing and then the good fortune to see their work published. I read recently that 88% of books reviewed by the New York Times are by white authors. Those working in publishing and those getting published are overwhelmingly university educated and middle class. I myself only got the courage to attempt writing after I’d read Tony Hogan bought me an Ice Cream float before he stole me Ma by Kerry Hudson. It was a raw and powerful portrayal of life as a child when nothing ever seems to go right.
When I worked at Action for Children we put listening to children and young people at the very centre of everything we did. Every single story that I heard was remarkable. I heard about short lives filled with more courage and resilience than Holden Caulfeld could muster. Our role was to present those stories to those in power. The people who run local services through to those in central government. That, however, can only take things so far. Children in care are almost five times more likely to struggle with mental health problems than children in the general population, but still their wellness is not prioritised. Through books we should set an example to the rest of the world. We should challenge assumptions, look for great stories above tired stereotypes and let more voices be heard.
Helen Donohoe lives in Finsbury Park, London with her partner and two daughters. She has dedicated her career to speaking up for the powerless and invisible as a campaigner, lobbyist, volunteer and writer and is now a freelance researcher and public policy consultant.
She recently completed the MA in Creative Writing (Novels) at City University, London, winning the PFD Novel Writing Prize with this, her first novel. Birdy Flynn marks the launch of a truly unique authorial voice.
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