The Freedom of Birds by Stephanie Parkyn
Rémi. Pascal. Saskia.
The storyteller. The costume maker. The contortionist – all artistes. All abandoned as children. These three are brothers and sister by chance rather than biology, and all find their way to one another, again and again, through the vibrant streets of Paris, of Venice, in underground illegal theatres, and somehow even the ravages of the wars can’t keep them apart.
The trio’s story takes place in the early nineteenth century, as Emperor Napoleon rages battles to maintain his empire. Rémi is the bold one, the adventurous one, the lover. Pascal is his faithful sidekick, who will follow wherever he goes, even if it means leaving behind the life they have always known in the theatre in Paris to roam the distant countryside, performing for their food. Saskia was abandoned by her mother to a circus when she was seven, and found her home there, only to be stolen away at twelve by a priest determined to mould her into an obedient young women through whatever torturous means necessary. When she runs away with the two young French storytellers, she finds an opportunity to shape a new future for herself.
The Freedom of Birds is at times dark and twisted, at others filled with laughter and light. The story’s title leaves you guessing at what freedom really means. Will it always be fleeting, existing only in the moment, before the cage closes in again? Does freedom mean a life always on the road, or does it mean being forever alone?
I read Stephanie Parkyn’s previous novel, Josephine’s Garden, also set in the reign of Napoleon. But while that was the story of the woman who became Napoleon's Empress, of the French elite, this earthier, quasi-magical story tells of the grassroots of European cities and their countryside. It is fantastic to see an author tell two different stories so well, and doing so must have required significant historical research.
While all of the characters in this novel are brilliantly sketched with depth and invested with real human emotions, the standout for me was Saskia. Red-headed, with an unquenchable spirit, Saskia probably suffers the most atrocities and the worst turns of fate out of the three. Parkyn has certainly gone to pains throughout the book to draw attention to how hard it was to be a woman in a world built on corrupt morals, battles, and the power of men who could turn out to be malevolent. Saskia seems almost to be a metaphor for hope itself, rising from the ashes again and again, not only to survive, but somehow, almost impossibly, to love. In saying this, all the characters in this book seem to have a fascinating depth of human complexity. The whole cast is a riot of names, of garments in jewel-like colours, of overlapping qualities of good and bad – so that the reader, just like the main characters, sometimes struggles to know who to trust.
Highly recommended for those who feel like being carried away into another world, one of loss, love, treachery, passion and hope.
Reviewer: Susannah Lyon-Whaley
Allen & Unwin