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?

25 thoughts on “Nina Bawden: The Birds on the Trees (1970)

  1. Yes, I’ve read NIna Bawden before, although many years ago now. I read a novel called Circles of Deceit, which I remember enjoying (although not much more about it than that). She was in some ways better known as a children’s author – Carrie’s War and The Peppermint Pig were big books when I was growing up.

    I’m really intrigued by the fact that this is the second book (to my knowledge) that you’ve found ‘flawed’ and then discovered it has strong autobiographical elements. Does this mean, do you think, that you highly prize the shapeliness of fiction, and its ability to produce patterns of meaning, and closure? That’s generally what’s missing from life, which is messier and more chaotic than stories.

    • You are right that this isn’t the first time I thought a book was flawed and it related something the author had experineced but the fact that I found it flawed is for the opposite reason. The book is flawed because it has an optimistic ending (and the description of the illness is somewhat fuzzy) and – as sadly life seems to have proven later – there was no happy ending for Bawden’s son. The contradictions, the struggle and failing to find an answer, all that worked well and makes this really fascinating. I seem to remember one critic saying that she had applied wishful thinking when she wrote the end. But it didn’t work.

      I think one of the problems is, that when an author incorporates a painful story while he/she is still in the middle of it, he loses persepctive and in this case on top of that, it seems, giving the book a positive outcome was what she needed in order to permit herself to write about her son. It’s a bit like what Emma wrote about. That French writer who wrote about the Austrian family. The story is too close in time.
      If I had had the problems her son had, I’m not sure I would have liked my mother to write a novel about it.

    • It’s very well written, very complex. Her story ceratinly is tragic. I was just so astonished about the electro shock I wouldn’t have thought they still did that in the 70s but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is about that as well.

    • Totally off the radar it seems, Stu. I think it’s not deserved. Here she clearly tackled a subjetc that was too emotional but I’m sure others of her books must be great.
      Isn’t that weird, I was just at your blog while you must have been here.

  2. Wonderful review, Caroline! This looks like a complex book. I have heard of Nina Bawden, but haven’t read any books of hers. It is sad in some ways that her own family inspired her to write this novel – I can only imagine what her son must have gone through and what she must have gone through as a result. Hampstead novel is an interesting term – I didn’t know about it before. I have only heard of Hampstead Heath 🙂

    • Thanks, Vishy. It’s sad she seems fogotten but she is well worth discovering. I just read a very awful thing. In 2002 she was in a train accident and was severly injured. Her husband was there with her and died on the spot. So much bad luck in one life. Very sad. I wonder how her son reacted when she wrote this but maybe he was too ill to realize.
      I’m intrigued by that term, Hampstead. As a refernce to a location it’s OK but it is used in a condescending way as well to refer to a specific kind of domestic setting. Rachel Cusk’s novel Arlington Park seems also to be part of this. I liked it very much.

    • You are welcome. After Litlove left her comment I went to see whether I could find any other books and ended up ordering Circle of Deceit. She has written a lot of novels, I’m very surprised she is hardly read anymore. Many are Virago titles. I’m glad you mentioned The Afternoon of A Good Woman. I was tempted but not sure at all, now I’m glad I didn’t order it. There are quite a lot to choose from.

      • Caroline: Afternoon of a Good Woman is a very introspective novel–the thoughts of a woman who’s on the brink of a big change in her life. It’s obviously well written but didn’t wow me.

        • I like introspective but I looked them up and I think I will read Circle of Deceit next. I really liked the way she showed the relationships and how different people are depending on who they interact with.

  3. I’ve wanted to read her for ages–my library has three of her books (though none mentioned here or the one you read). I’d also never heard the term Hampstead Novel, which is also interesting. Probably British readers would get that nuance but setting wouldn’t mean much to me. This sounds a little like We Need to Talk About Kevin (which I also haven’t read), though with different circumstances–but I like the sound of the story, even if it is flawed character-wise. I did, however, see the film adaptation of Carrie’s War, which was wonderful. I need to get around to reading her I see.

    • I’m sure you will like her. I’m glad I discovered her and want to read more of her. I have read We Need to Talk About Kevin. I thought it was an astonishing book but completely different. Nina Bawden is more subtle but We Need to Talk About Kevin is more disturbing. It haunted me for weeks. The end is astonishing. But the search for who is responsible is similar. I’m looking forward to see which one you will pick. She has written a lot. I will try to find the movie of carrie’s War. Thanks for that.

      • I keep looking at Tortoise by Candlelight (what a title!) as that is a Virago and my library has it, but there are also two other adult titles by her on hand. I want to get Carrie’s War to read–I think you’ll like the movie.

        • From what I saw on amazon uk, most of her books are Virago’s and a lot is available cheap and second hand. She must have been read much more widely before. Tortoise by Candlelight! I didn’t see that one. I’m looking forward to Circle of Deceit and will see if I find the movie.

  4. Thanks for the intro, as I don’t read a lot of press articles, I didn’t know about the Lost Man Booker Titles. I’ll read the articles about settings, it’s intriguing. That’s a problem when you read foreign literature, you always miss that kind of reference. The other side of the argument is that you read the book without preconceived ideas.

    This novelmakes me think of Ordinary People by Judith Guest.

    Perhaps Charlie should have started watching films with his son after he was expelled from school. 🙂

    Not surprisingly, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that she turned something so personal into a novel so shortly after the events. (just like this book in an American highschool in Paris) But why not, after all? She’s free to turn her painful experience into art. The real question is : what about her other children?

    Anyway, why does it bother you when you liked Annie Ernaux so much? What’s the difference? Is it because she called it “novel” and changed the ending?

    PS: Lots of noise about Claustria in the French media. Even I can’t avoid it. I can’t help thinking they should give us a break and make us discover other writers.

    • My problem was that Ernaux writes about herself and her dead parents but Bawden writes about her son, still alive and ill, that’s it, not the autobiographical approach. I wouldn’t have thought it would have been better if it had been a memoir. I had and have a lot of things to tell but I would never have done that while people are still alive. I find that indecent. That’s why I have no problem with Black Dahlia or something like that or a problem with a bipolar woman writing about her illness but please, don’t go writing about someone else. I have ordered her memoir which she wrote after her son died and am very curious to see. She did ask herself whether it is OK to do so, in the book, and she is ambivalent.
      I don’t know whether she had other children as well.
      The topic of favouritism has often been on my mind. I have no siblings but I have hardly seen a famil in which all the children are treated the same. I even have favourite cat and I know they know it. How much more must children know it. I read an article just two weeks ago about this.
      There is always one author center stage every other year, and rarely the good ones. In Germany it was Charlotte Roche for a few years now. I’m NOT going to read her. And am mostly likely not going to read Claustria.

      • Good point, Annie Ernaux writes about herself. She decides for herself to expose her intimate thoughts. In this case, only a memoir authorized by her son sounds acceptable. Otherwise, you can’t help wondering how he coped with it.

        Come and meet my parents and in-laws: they know how to have several children without favouritism. I paused to think about it, I don’t have a favourite child.

        • Exactly, that’s where Ernaux is different. One can like what she does or not but it is mostly about her her dead parents.
          I’m sure some parents are exceptions. I have seen a lot of families and in most of them there was clearly a favourite. Not always the eldest but often. I think there isn’t even much you can do when you feel like that.

  5. Interesting article but I didn’t get all the references. Now I’ll know that NW3 is a fancy zip code, if I got it right. (As famous as 90210 in LA?)

    In France, most novels are set in Paris. Sometimes in Britanny. Sometimes on the French Riviera.

    • I thought the article was interesting.
      That’s what I was thinking about French books as well. They are mostly set in Paris but the choice of arrondissement gives away a lot. A novel set in the 20è isn’t going to be about the same as one set in the 16è.

  6. interesting review Caroline. I have never heard of both Nina Bawden and the Lost Brooker Man award.

    Family crisis is interesting to watch but not to read…at least for me 😉
    The part that intrigued me the most is the favoritism part. It is a hard thing to not show favoritism, but at least the parents can suppress it so that the other won’t see it as transparent as that.

    • Thanks, Novia. I read a very good article on favouritism and they showed that even parents who try not to show it, show it without noticing. What is interesting in the novel is the fact that the child who is preferred suffers. But it’s only one interpretation that this lies behind his illness.
      It’s touching when the younger children start to belive that they have been adopted. It even makes them feel better because it seems like a rational explanation why Toby is the favourite.

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