Nina Bawden: The Birds on the Trees (1970)

The expulsion from school of their eldest son shatters the middle-class security of Maggie, a writer, and Charlie, a journalist. Since childhood, Toby has been diffident and self-absorbed, but the threat of drug taking and his refusal (or inability) to discuss his evident unhappiness, disturbs them sufficiently to seek professional help. Veering between private agony and public cheerfulness, Maggie and Charlie struggle to support their son and cope with the reactions- and advice- of friends and relatives. Noted for the acuity with which she reaches into the heart of relationships, Nina Bawden here excels in revealing the painful, intimate truths of a family in crisis. Toby’s situation is explored with great tenderness, while Maggie’s grief and self-recrimination are rigorously, if compassionately, observed. It is a novel that raises fundamental questions about parents and their children, and offers tentative hope but no tidy solutions.

Nina Bawden’s novel The Birds on the Trees was one of the so-called Lost Man Booker titles in 2010. These were books that would have been on the Man Booker short list in 1971 if the dates for the Prize hadn’t been moved. While reading about this, I encountered the expression Hampstead novel, a label I had never heard of before. It seems this label was used to describe a specific type of novel, not only set in Hampstead but focussing on leftist-liberal intellectuals of the middle-class. Margaret Dabble and Iris Murdoch were named as well. When I hear a description like that I have to fight the urge to yawn.  That does sound boring, doesn’t it? In any case, the fact that Bawden was nominated for the Lost Man Booker in 2010, with a novel that was, as critics wrote, so clearly a Hampstead novel, triggered a lot of more or less interesting response in the media and some referred to older articles. One article I read was particularly interesting because it looked at settings in British literature. If you are interested here is the link. The writer argues that to a certain extent you can deduce the themes and topics from the location of a book. It’s highly unlikely that you will find the same topics in a novel located in Peterborough as in a novel set in Wales. This may be very obvious for a British reader but for me it was highly enlightening.

Hampstead novel or not, The Birds on the Trees is the story of a family crisis. The family is an intellectual middle-class family. The mother is a writer, the father a journalist. The book opens in the past, when Toby, the oldest son, is barely five years old and runs away at Christmas. He is an odd little boy. Strangely quiet and polite for his age. The book then fast-forwards 13 years. Toby is 18 and has been expelled from school because of marijuana abuse. He has two younger siblings, 11-year-old Lucy and the 5-year-old Greg. The parents are shocked and horrified and have no clue what to do with their son. For Maggie, the mother, it’s clear, he has to go to Oxford, one way or another. Charlie, the father, would rather give him a break and let him figure out what he would like to do. But these are not the only two people with a strong opinion and some saying in the matter. Aunt Phoebe, the  domineering widowed sister of Charlie, meddles as well. And Maggie’s mother plays an important role too.

The structure and character portraits of this novel is what I liked best. It moves from one person to another, changing from first to third person narrative and gives the point of view and impressions of each character. The voices are very authentic, the dialogue rings true. Through all those inputs we see how much is really going on under the surface and how dysfunctional the family is.

Toby cannot stand it anymore at home after his expulsion and after having stayed at his grandparent’s home for a while, finally moves to London to live with an older friend. It seems he starts to use other drugs and when the parents go and get him, he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and diagnosed with schizophrenic disorder. Electro shock is the chosen cure. I didn’t like this part of the story at all and had a problem to fully understand why Toby was called mentally ill. He seemed more aloof and detached than genuinely depressed or psychotic.

If Toby’s illness and the horrifying “cure” had been all this novel had to offer, I would have hated it, I’m sure, but there is so much more going on. It isn’t only well written but the different story lines and aspects are thought-provoking and captivating. Maggie, the mother, is by far the least appealing character. After a while she started to really get on my nerves. There is an instance in which she discusses with her husband whether it is OK to take the things that happen and turn them into a novel. This is a very important moment that could easily be missed. If I hadn’t done some research I wouldn’t have known that Nina Bawden told the story of her own family. Her son suffered from mental illness, abused drugs and finally killed himself in 1982. This may explain to some degree why the book is so flawed and at the same time so interesting. It seems as if she was in writing it, trying to answer the question of responsibility and at the same time imagining a positive outcome.

One of the core themes that I found to be extremely well executed is favouritism. Toby was the first child and remained, even after the others were born, very obviously the favourite. Although his little sister loves him, she and her younger brother start to believe that they might have been adopted. It seems the only explanation why Toby is always the center of attention.

While the end of the book and the description of the mental illness aren’t convincing, I still enjoyed this novel because it manages to capture insecurity and conflicting emotions at the heart of families so well. Some of the character portraits are great. With a few exceptions, there is hardly a conflict-free relationship in this family and the book illustrates them all. Depending on who talks to whom, the interaction triggers different aspects in the personality of the characters. One person who is quite insufferable in contact with someone may be quite charming the moment he or she speaks to someone else. Often people show only one part of their personality to someone and keep another part for someone else. Through the interior monologues and dialogues all the facets of the characters are wonderfully well shown. Maybe, as some journalists argued, the book didn’t deserve the Man Booker, being too flawed and too Hampsteadish, true enough, still I thought it was a great read.

Does anyone know Nina Bawden? Has she written other books that are worth reading?