A Bird in Winter by Louise Doughty is a difficult book to describe. Ostensibly it’s a slow burning thriller – about a woman who goes on the run, slowly sharing with us the ‘why’. What elevated it for me was the (almost) syncopated way in which Doughty doles out details, as well as her beautiful writing. Sentences and phrases leapt out at me. It’s also most definitely not the book I was expecting it to be, and it unfolds in a way that’s weirdly unsettling.
A Bird in Winter
by Louise Doughty
Published by Faber
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Literary Fiction, Thriller / Suspense
Bird is a woman on the run. One minute, she's in a meeting in her office in Birmingham - the next, she's walking out on her job, her home, her life. It's a day she thought might come, and one she's prepared for - but nothing could prepare her for what will happen next.
As she flees north using multiple disguises, Bird has to work out who exactly is on her trail, and who - if anyone - she can trust. Like many people, she has fantasised about escape for a long time, but now it's actually happening. Is her greatest fear that she will be hunted down, or that she will never be found?
The book opens with Heather (Bird) going on the run. We don’t know why. Initially at least. (As the backcover blurb says), she’s in a meeting one minute and calculating the number of steps to the elevators the next. In between that however Doughty takes us back to Bird’s childhood briefly where we’re introduced to her father. We learn Heather doted on him but knew from a young age that he lied. His trips and work were secretive, though at some point – without having the overt discussion – Heather realised he worked for a government agency most likely identified by its letters and numbers.
Doughty sets an engaging pace here by taking readers on Heather’s flight and I must admit I learned some very clever ‘evasion’ tools*. She pops onto a soon-to-depart train waiting at a station to go into the toilet and completely change her look, emerging before the train leaves. And later scopes out holiday accommodation to use after the cleaner visits between guests.
She’s on the run for the entire book and it’s only near the end we get the full story… and it’s far more complicated than I expected. But, amidst the action we get glimpses into Heather’s life. We dip in and out of her past and though I struggled at times to understand how things fitted together, in retrospect it’s cleverly delivered.
We also meet the love of Heather’s life – Flavia. Theirs isn’t a romantic love, they just complete each other as kindred spirits tend to.
It’s Flavia though who confronts Heather about the life she’s living. Unable to tell Flavia who she’s working for (in the footsteps of her father), she ponders the age-old question… did she choose that life, or did that life choose her (her personality already suited to that kind of work). Although my work is very different, I pondered the same and the fact I often find myself in jobs that require me to be quite manic. Or is it because I’m like that, THAT I’m drawn to that kind of work?
I suspect it’s those philosophical elements of the book that surprised me. Heather’s reached a point she has been expecting, but (at the same time) would never have expected to reach. And she reflects on decisions she’s made to get there.
Why do we run? Is it because we want to be far away, to be hidden – or is it because the most profound of all human desires is to be found? p 283
Perhaps I could relate to Heather in ways other readers might not. But I found my own thinking challenged, as Heather’s own identity is challenged.
I’ve not read any of Doughty’s work before, though she (now) has a double-digi backlist, several awards to her name and a couple of her books adapted for television. In some ways she reminds me of Anita Brookner (another English novelist), whose work I very much admire(d) so I’ll certainly seek out more of her books.
Isn’t it enough that we are fragile, that we are made of soft flesh, and bones we can break by merely slipping on an icy pavement? Apparently not. We have to make the whole world fragile too. We have to be fearful of what can drop from the sky with a scream or a whistle, of the waters rising, of the sky itself rending in two and the air we beneath being sucked into space. p 276
A Bird in Winter by Louise Doughty was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy from the publisher for review purposes.
* Should I ever need them… 🙄