‘The Bird Room’ by Chris Killen

BirdRoom

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 208 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes you finish reading a book and you’re not quite sure what you think of it. You’re not even sure if you liked it. If you flex your brain matter a bit more you might even come to the conclusion that you hated it — but you couldn’t be sure.

The Bird Room by debut novelist Chris Killen is one of those books. I read it in just two sittings, but even before I’d come to the last page I was trying to figure out my feelings about it. By the time I came to the rather abrupt ending I was scratching my head, unable to figure out if the young Manchester-based author is a genius or a chancer.

The book is set somewhere in northern England. It’s about Will, an insecure 20-something who ditches his job because he’s bored, but then never bothers to look for other work. When he meets Alice, a cool, sexy girl on the rebound from a failed relationship, he can’t quite believe his luck. She promptly moves in with him, and, not wanting to shatter the illusion that he’s a good catch, Will fails to tell her that he’s unemployed. He makes up some story about how he works from home instead — and she shows so little real interest in him, beyond the sex, that she never bothers to question such a blatantly obvious lie.

But then Alice meets another guy called Will, a charming artist who’s witty and intelligent, and it looks like it doesn’t really matter whether Will, the unemployed one, has a job or not. Unfortunately he is so weak-willed and wimpish he doesn’t bother standing up for himself. Or at least that’s the assumption you’re expected to make, because Will is not all that he appears to be. He might have a tortured love life, but beneath it all beats a very dark heart…

The Bird Room is riddled with wicked one-liners. The prose style is short and snappy. Killen rations out words like they’re rare and precious stones he’s reluctant to give away.

The characterisation is wonderful — indeed it’s one of the book’s strengths. It’s peppered with no-hopers, of young adults that haven’t quite figured out their place in the world, and so, despite their obviously twisted outlooks, you can’t help but feel sorry for them. The book treads a nice line between black comedy and pathos. There’s plenty of sex and melancholia in the mix too, just to make it all that more interesting.

M.J. Hyland has described it as “an astonishingly good first novel” while Steven Hall says it’s “either disturbingly brilliant or brilliant disturbing”. I think it’s slightly weird and a little bit clever, but I still can’t figure out if I loved it or loathed it.The Bird Room is published in paperback by Canongate next month.

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