I found it slightly disconcerting at first. Eva Meijer, the multi-talented author of Bird Cottage (Het vogelhuis in the original Dutch) has such a particular way of articulating her main protagonist’s thoughts on the page that I almost felt like I was inside her head. Although definitely not a stream-of-consciousness novel, the slightly jerky way in which thoughts and observations are expressed, which to me often felt like a layer of (ultimately unnecessary) explanation had deliberately not been added, gives the reader the sometimes unsettling sense of being inside someone else’s mind. Although this is what all first-person narratives aim at doing, I have rarely noticed it to be so skilfully done as here. Initially it threw me a little, until I realised what it was that I found different.
Bird Cottage is a fictitious portrayal of the life of Len Howard, a professional musician who gave up her career with a London orchestra to move to Sussex and study ornithology. Her relationship with birds was intimate and unusual, her research – based on entirely autodidactic knowledge – unprecedented and way ahead of its time. The two books she published in her lifetime were great successes, but when she died in 1973 her work sank into oblivion. Now Eva Meijer has brought it back out into the light and, using her imagination and skill as a writer, given the story wings.
Based on a few scraps of biographical information, the novel follows independent, strong-willed Len (short for Gwendolen) from her childhood in coastal Wales to her longed-for musical career in London, where she has an on-and-off affair with an artist, makes many friends and helps teach music to children from poor neighbourhoods. Living through both World Wars, her life is affected by many of the twentieth century’s most significant moments; she is also briefly involved in the suffragette movement, for example. The scope of the novel is wide-reaching, yet at its centre is this one boldly drawn character, a woman who knows her own mind and whom we as readers are privileged to come to know as well.
In between chapters narrating her life – the course of which, I got the sense, was influenced in no small way by her rather temperamental parents – we are treated to excerpts (again fictionalised) from Len’s notes on the birds with whom she shares the latter part of her life. Moving to Sussex at the age of forty, she opens her home – the Bird Cottage of the title – to an array of British birds including great tits, robins and blackbirds. With a window always open for the birds to fly in and out, she dedicated her life to studying their behaviour in a natural, rather than controlled laboratory environment. The results were astounding, attributing a previously unthought-of level of intelligence and empathy to our common garden birds. These in-between chapters dwell particularly on her touching relationship with a great tit called Star, with whom she developed a deep and long-lasting bond.
It feels like the best possible time to bring Len Howard’s work back out into the light, a task that Eva Meijer has taken on with great imagination and perception. Antoinette Fawcett’s translation is likewise a beautiful piece of work – although I can’t read the original Dutch, her choice of words is sensitive to the vagaries of time and place, employing a language that develops naturally as Len ages and the Britain around her changes. The fact that this was a book written in Dutch but placed in a thoroughly British setting must also have posed challenges for the translation, yet whatever they were Fawcett seems to have tackled them with aplomb.
It might not have made me want to chuck it all in and move to live alone in the country – throughout the book I was haunted by a whiff of great loneliness emanating from the figure of Len – but it has certainly made me look at and think about birds differently. Next time you see a sparrow in the garden or hear an unseen bird sing, you will have a much greater sense of appreciation and understanding having read this book.
My rating: 4/5