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?

Lemon Tree – Etz Limon (2008) World Cinema Series – Israel


The Palestinian widow Salma Zidane lives alone in a humble concrete house. Her son lives in the US, her daughter lives with her family in another village. She hardly sees anyone apart from an old man who already helped her father tend the lemon trees behind the house. The lemon grove she has inherited from her father is her only possession, her only possibility to make a living. The grove is 5o years old, the trees are lush and green, very healthy and produce an abundance of intense yellow fruit. Salma enjoys walking through the rows of trees, to tend to them, water them, pick the fruit, make lemonade or pickle them. For 50 years the lemon grove has been the pride and joy of her family.


But Eran Rikli’s movie Lemon Tree is not about joy, it’s about conflict, a conflict that breaks out when the Israeli Minister of Defense moves into the villa next to Salma’s grove. Salma lives on the West Bank, the grove is located directly on the Israeli border. And what is life-enhancing for one person, becomes a threat for another. Fences are erected, control posts installed, security cameras attached everywhere, military patrols scheduled. Still, that doesn’t seem enough. Terrorists could hide under the trees. Bombs could be thrown.


When the Secret Service decides to have the grove torn down, Salma seeks help. She finds a young, idealistic lawyer who wants to help her. It takes months and months, to fight for the trees. Meanwhile the Israelis have erected a huge fence all around the grove and Salma isn’t allowed to enter it anymore. She has to watch helplessly how the healthy trees are dying.


The movie doesn’t only focus on the conflict but looks into the different relationships of the people involved. The minister’s wife and Salma often look at each other through the fence, each wondering how the other woman lives. The grove and the decision to have it destroyed lead to a lot of tension in the marriage of the minister and his wife. On the other side of the fence, Salma and Ziad the lawyer develop a friendship that could become more, if there weren’t the watchful eyes of the ever-present Palestinian elders.


Lemon Tree is a very subtle movie that sheds light on one of the hot spots in the Middle East. It doesn’t give any easy answers nor blame excessively. Both parties are trapped, trapped in their cultures, their languages, their fears. The fences and walls that are erected are symbols of this imprisonment as much as the lemon trees are a symbol of freedom and beauty. In the end there is no win-win but a loss-loss situation.


I was very moved by this movie and to a large extent this is also thanks to the great actors. Hiam Abbass as Salma and Ali Suliman as Ziad are outstanding. It’s certainly not a cheerful movie but an important one.


Lemon Tree is part of my World Cinema Series and a contribution to Richard’s Foreign Film Festival.


Literature and War Readalong February 27 2012: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

In last year’s readalong we also read a WWI novel from the Irish perspective. It was one of my favourites and since I’m fond of Irish literature, I thought it would be great to add another one this year. I wanted to read Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way since Danielle (A Work in Progress) first mentioned it. WWI has a special meaning for the Irish. They were neutral during WWII, so, clearly, WWI has another importance. There were reasons why they remained neutral during the second World war which are tied to their own history. While some men, like the character Willie Dunne in this novel, fought for the Allies, other forces in the home country were about to erupt and would lead to the Easter Rising. WWI, the Irish War of Independence, followed by the Irish Civil War, cost the Irish too many lives for them to risk being dragged into WWII as well. I’m certainly simplifying but in a nutshell this was one of the reasons.

Some of what I just mentioned is the topic of Barry’s novel.

Here are the first sentences

He was born in the dying days.

It was the withering end of 1896. He was called William after the long-dead Orange King, because his father took an interest in such distant matters. On top of that, an old great-uncle, William Cullen, was yet living in Wicklow, across the mountains as they used to say, where his father himself had been reared.

I have read Sebastian Barry’s award-winning The Secret Scripture three years ago and I was one of a very few who didn’t like it. It had nothing to do with the writing as such which is great and one of the reasons why A Long Long Way was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005. The reasons why I didn’t like it were timing and implausibility. I had just read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox before and the theme is the same, only I liked O’Farrell’s novel much better as it didn’t rely on implausible coincidences. Despite this unfortunate encounter I’m really looking forward to A Long Long Way and hope that some of you will join me.

Have you read Sebastian Barry?


The discussion starts on Monday, 27 February 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Carrie Ryan: The Forest of Hands and Teeth (2010)

In Mary’s world there are simple truths. The Sisterhood always knows best. The Guardians will protect and serve. The Unconsecrated will never relent. And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village; the fence that protects the village from the Forest of Hands and Teeth. 

I don’t think it is a coincidence that books like Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth are so popular. All around me people speak about their insecurities, how they have lost their confidence, their belief that all will stay the way it is, that they are safe. Many fear that the world as we know it may come to an end.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is set in a time, long after the world as we know it has come to an end. A strange illness broke out, called The Return, and since then the world is divided in the people living in the village, guarded by the Sisterhood and the Guardians and those, behind the fences, who live in the forest, the so-called Unconsecrated. The Unconsecrated are living dead, zombies, who spread their disease through biting the living.

The story is told by Mary whose father has disappeared in the forest and possibly become one of the Unconsecrated and whose mother approaches the fence at the beginning of the book and turns. Her brother is a guardian. Mary will mostly probably get married to Harry, that’s the wish of the community and the Sisterhood who reign over this enclosed world. Harry and Mary have been friends forever, just like Cass and Mary have been friends. What nobody knows is that Mary is in love with Travis, Harry’s brother.

Until the day when the Unconsecrated breach the fence and kill almost all the villagers, it’s not clear whether Mary will join the Sisterhood or become a wife and mother. When their world collapses and they have to flee, it’s not that important anymore. Mary and a group of six people and a dog escape the village and reach a secret path that leads through the forest. The path is secured by a fence through which the moaning Unconsecrated try to reach them.

The path is like a maze. It’s mysterious and they do not know where they are going. There were tales of cities and an ocean somewhere beyond the forest. They don’t have a lot of food and are attacked constantly. When they arrive at an abandoned village they hope they may soon arrive at their destination and find safety.

The beginning of the story is unlike the stories in any zombie movie, I have ever seen. In the movies the zombies usually attack from the start and the people have to fight them. In this novel, for a long time, they are just a threatening presence and the book is all atmosphere but then, they close in on them and breach one gate after the other and the book turns into an action-packed novel that moves towards a climatic ending. Climatic and sad as some of the small group of survivors are bitten on the way.

I never felt like reading a zombie novel before and if it hadn’t been for Sarah’s intriguing review I wouldn’t have tried this book but I’m glad I did. It has a very special and haunting atmosphere, very captivating and oddly enthralling. The word zombies, is never used, by the way, but it’s clear from the descriptions. The Forest of Hands and Teeth is part I of a trilogy. I won’t rush to read part II and III right now but I feel like reading them some day.

Here’s another review by Fence (Susan Hated Literature).