And of course, as soon as the door was open and she’d taken a few steps into the apartment, out it came the question I’d been expecting.
“Um, Corbin? Where’s your furniture “
The short answer was nowhere. Aside from a couple of mattresses, two cushions, and a folding stool that makes sure Mom’s cherished aloe plant gets some sun, we have no furniture. Anyone I brought to the apartment was guaranteed to ask about that. One of the top ten reasons I never invite anyone over.
“Oh, furniture,” I said offhandedly. “Yeah, we don’t have any. “
“You have no furniture?”
“Remember? I told you we’re minimalists?
“But you have nothing. That’s not minimal — it’s zero!”
I knew by the way she eased back a couple of steps that the nearly-empty apartment was unnerving her.
Corbin, who is in grade six, is mature beyond his years as he attempts to care for his mother who battles bipolar disorder. But he is isolated, unable to develop friendships, reach out for help or put down roots knowing that eventually his mother’s erratic behavior will disrupt them. He loves his mother, but, more often than not, he must act as the parent, bravely taking small jobs such as babysitting or running errands at the grocery store in exchange for food. When he is given a parrot named Sitta, Corbin finds an outlet for his pain, feeling the bird understands him and is on his side as he experiences his mother’s highs and lows, including an attempted suicide. Only when the situation reaches rock bottom does he open up to others, finding nonjudgmental friendship and support.
Author Valerie Sherrard is not one to shy away from difficult topics in her writing. Narrated by Corbin, Birdspell is a moving and authentic depiction of Corbin’s stalwart adaptions to tragic circumstances. His mother’s battle with bipolar disorder is heartbreakingly described, and the reader catches glimpses of the real person and then watches her disappear into the frenetic and later the catatonic aspects of her illness.
Each character in Birdspell, whether major or supporting, is utterly credible. Corbin’s narrative reveals his maturity and self-awareness, including his isolation, vulnerability and sometimes his desperation. Despite his reluctance to make friends, people care about him, and these characters are equally well-drawn and complex. Despite his apparent irascibility, lonely Mr. Zinbendal, Corbin’s neighbor in the apartment opposite, becomes a true friend. Izelle, a school acquaintance who shares Corbin’s love of Sitta, understands and supports him more than he realizes as does Taylor, another resident in Corbin’s building for whom he babysits. And Mike, who acts as his guardian when his mother is hospitalized, gives Corbin a refreshing taste of normalcy in his life.
Birdspell is a deep and beautifully written title that once begun is hard to put down. Despite the tragedy of the circumstances, the novel is a compelling story of strength, hope and compassion.
Aileen Wortley is a retired children’s librarian from Toronto, Ontario.