Following on from my reading of In my Own Time by Nina Bawden – I was anxious to read the novel she wrote based upon her experiences as mother to a son later diagnosed with schizophrenia. In life, of course, Nina Bawden’s son Niki killed himself in 1981, so for me there was added poignancy to a novel only published in 1970 – a time when perhaps she believed the worst of his problems were behind him. Some of the stories about this fictional son I recognised from In My Own Time as being stories of Niki.
The Birds in the Trees is beautifully observed with great insight and honesty, it is a novel about parents and children and family life with all its complexities. In 2010 The Birds on the Trees was nominated for The Lost Booker – voted for by readers, Bawden lost out to Troubles by J G Farrell (another excellent novel). The Lost Booker was for books published in 1970 – as changing Booker rules that year meant many novels lost out on being considered.
Toby Flowers is the boy/young man at the centre of this novel – which is told in the varying voices of his family – his mother and father, younger sister and grandmother. These first-person narratives dropped into what is largely a third person narrative, works so well – giving the novel an added intimacy.
“Mummy and Daddy are dead,’ the child said, softly but distinctly, so that Mr Tilney could not pretend he hadn’t heard. Not that he wished to: after the first chill, the sad little statement opened doors in his mind that had been closed for a long time.”
The novel opens with a prologue – in which we meet Toby as a young boy. Toby arrives at a neighbour’s house – late on Christmas Eve saying no one is at home. The neighbours are naturally concerned, have had experience of a hungry Toby turning up in their kitchen before – of course none of it is true. Yet Toby is a lovable little chap – he doesn’t seem to know he’s lying and causing acute embarrassment for his young parents.
Toby’s mother is Maggie, a writer, his father Charlie a journalist. Since early childhood Toby; the eldest of three siblings, has been self-absorbed and awkward, but as he gets older his behaviour gives his family even more cause for concern, when there is a suggestion of drug use. Toby’s ideas for his future differ from those of his mother, when he is expelled from school in his A level year – it highlights the fact that Toby is unlikely to fulfil the expectations his parents once had for him. Toby refuses to discuss his obvious unhappiness and Maggie and Charlie struggle to understand and support the son who they love so much. As Charlie says:
“”All generations face, on the surface, much the same problems; each knows its situation to be unique. Ours, for example. Children before the war, emerged through it into parenthood, Freud in one hand, Spock in the other, into a world where truth is relative, uncertainty a virtue, nothing known… Except guilt, possibly. That is our hall-mark. Out parents did their duty, knew what was right; our sins were original, no fault of theirs.”
Maggie’s mother gives her advice from a distance – which infuriatingly is of the ‘he should cut his hair and knuckle under’ variety. Aunt Phoebe – Charlie’s wealthy, widowed sister, is unhelpful too when she visits – incurring the wrath of twelve-year-old Lucy, who adores Toby and is quick to defend him. Toby has taken to wearing a burnouse pulled up over his head – in which he seems to shield himself from the world. Later, Lucy becomes convinced – following a throw away remark from her younger brother Greg, that the two of them must be adopted – Toby so much the focus in their young minds for all the love affection, worry and attention in the Flowers household. Lucy is a fabulous character, she’s observant, yet only partly knowing, she is rather afraid to fully understand the things she only has an inkling about, the things she overhears. She is often isolated from everyone else, the middle child, the only girl, she is anxious and lonely. The fragility of the relationships within the family are exposed by everyone’s concerns over Toby, memories of former times triggered in Sara (Toby’s grandmother) and Maggie. We get a glimpse of Sara long married to a wildly eccentric, difficult man, Maggie thinks she should leave him, carve out a few years of happiness for herself, yet here too we see one family member not fully understanding the point of view of another. Bawden is brilliant at recreating these family dynamics.
Maggie and Charlie’s friends are drawn into the drama too, Including Elsa; the promiscuous widow of Charlie’s best friend and Angus a psychiatrist friend – married to an old school friend of Maggie’s who Maggie and Charlie decide to consult professionally about Toby. At a party hosted by Elsa, for her son’s twenty-first Maggie and Charlie, are accompanied by Toby (wearing his burnouse) – who having grown up with Hugh is a good friend. Elsa is all bright, unconcern about Toby, while Maggie tries hard to like her.
“’Darlings…’ Her cool cheek touched theirs, her lips sucked air. She took Toby in her arms and kissed him on the mouth. ‘Sweet Toby, you look marvellous in that get up. The girls will go down like ninepins. Go and take your pick – they’re all down in the boat house.’
Bright red and breathing hard, Toby retreated backwards, as if leaving a royal presence. ‘That is the most super boy,’ Elsa said. ‘I wish I were younger.’ She sighed, put her hand on Maggie’s arm. ‘It really is the most frightful thing about the school. I’m so terribly sorry.’”
In this novel Bawden is particularly adept at portraying the truth of a family in crisis, the self-recrimination which goes on, the guilt, arguments, grief the small (and not so small) betrayals which come out of dysfunctional family life. Maggie and Charlie can’t help but project their own wishes for Toby on to him, this is difficult for Toby to cope with, he is very clear about what he does and doesn’t want. Bawden doesn’t give us a nice and tidy resolution, there are none in such cases – although there is definite hope. Reading, The Birds on the Trees with the benefit of hindsight I am struck by how even that small amount of hope was denied her in the end.