Bird is full of interesting ingredients. The story is narrated by Jewel who has grown up in a deeply unhappy household. Her silent, taciturn grandfather and her mournful father are Jamaican. They believe in totems, curses, duppies and restless spirits. Jewel’s more rational but equally depressed mother is from Mexico, a culture with its own magic, particularly Xolo dogs which act as guardians. The family is locked in grief for Jewel’s brother Bird, who died aged five by jumping off a cliff on the day Jewel was born.
Jewel has to navigate her family’s grief and try to flourish in a dim, loveless atmosphere of blame. The novel gets going when Jewel meets Eugene, a black boy adopted by a white family. He too feels unwanted. Eugene dreams of becoming an astronaut and Jewel hopes to be a geologist. The two teenagers exchange scientific facts that don’t read easily out of such young mouths. Nonetheless Crystal Chan ably and subtly captures the nuances of friendship. Eugene helps Jewel make sense of her family tragedy and together they negotiate the strange workings and appearances of duppies and Xolo dogs, appearances that the author neglects to satisfactorily resolve.
The ultimate message of Bird is one of family healing but the book is overlong and the pace slow, which breeds a sense of dissatisfaction—a dissatisfaction furthered by exaggerated blurbs. Had Bird been promoted as a “charming book about friendship” it would live up to its fanfare. “Utterly beguiling and truly magical” it is not.