Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 190 pages; 1972.
Recently the organisers of the Man Booker Prize announced a new one-off award: the Lost Man Booker Prize. This is designed to honour books, published in 1970, which missed out on the opportunity to win the Booker Prize.
Nina Bawden‘s The Birds on the Trees is one of 22 titles which have has been long-listed (a shortlist will be revealed in March), so what better reason to extract it from the tottering TBR pile for a quick weekend read.
It’s probably best described as an English middle-class kitchen-sink drama. The cover of my first edition Penguin paperback (see above) makes it sound like a sordid story about a teenager on drugs — “This is Toby: withdrawn, difficult, intelligent, and a drug addict. His family are baffled, defeated…” — but it’s really about parental expectations and what happens when your children do not live up to them.
Intriguingly, the book opens with a prologue that introduces us to Toby as a young child. He has a penchant for wandering away from home and visiting the neighbours, usually turning up at Sunday morning breakfasts with “dark famine eyes”, declaring that Mummy has given him nothing to eat. It becomes even more shocking when he appears on the doorstep at 10pm one Christmas Eve and tells them that Mummy and Daddy have gone away for Christmas and left him behind, alone. This serves to plant a seed of doubt in the reader’s mind: is Toby a liar or are his parents negligent in their care?
When we get to chapter one, Toby is now 18 years old. He has a younger sister, Lucy, who is 12, and a brother, Greg, who’s about 7. His mother, Maggie, is a successful novelist and his father, Charlie, an editor. The family is in turmoil because Toby has been expelled from his rather expensive private school for smoking pot. But his Aunt Phoebe seems to be the only one treating it with any sense of perspective.
“It’s a terrible disappointment for you and for them [your parents]. But what’s done is done. […] I hope you will treat this, not as a disaster, but a challenge! When something like this happens, it is often the moment to change direction! Lots of great men have had setbacks, worse than being expelled from school! But they haven’t sat down under them, nor retreated into self-pity. Not stagnated, but gone on to climb the heights. Failure was often just what they needed to set them on the path of success. A timely spur! Grasp the nettle, Toby, grasp the nettle.”
Sadly, Toby does not use the experience to “change direction”, because his parents already have his life mapped out for him: he will cram for his exams at home and then concentrate on the Oxford entrance in the autumn. But Toby, predictably, doesn’t want to go to Oxford — he wants to be “driving a minibus, taking kids to school” — and ends up running away to London, where he stays with a family friend, 21-year-old Hugh, in a basement flat.
Obviously there’s a lot of gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands and parents blaming themselves for what they see as their son’s downfall. Even Toby’s grandmother gets in on the act, berating her daughter when she says “we must have failed him terribly”.
“My dear girl, what are you talking about? The things that boy has had from you! Expensive schools, books, holidays — everything he could possibly want he’s been given. Too much, I sometimes thought, I don’t mind telling you now!”
A product of its time
When Toby shows signs of depression he’s carted off to a mental hospital for a nice little bit of Electric Shock Treatment. To modern minds this seems over-the-top outrageous given that Toby merely smoked a bit of pot and then “lost his way” a little, but The Birds in the Trees is a product of its time. These days the son would be travelling to Africa or backpacking to Australia on his gap year and all this overwrought drama would be treated as nothing more than a rite of passage. But here, in 1970, the generation gap is so wide as to be unbridgeable, and the dangers of drugs — pot, LSD, heroin — are around every corner.
What I liked about this novel, apart from its easy-to-read quality, is the ways in which Bawden explores the drama from every family member’s point of view, so what you get is a rich, complicated tapestry of petty jealousies, sibling rivalry, love, loyalty, empathy and fear. She’s not afraid to show everyone’s faults and foibles, so that even if you think that Maggie and Charlie are too over-protective, too prone to mollycoddle their son, you can at least understand their point of view.
Family life comes in shades of grey, and Bawden paints it faithfully and realistically. Is this enough to win the Lost Man Booker? I’m not sure. While The Birds on the Trees is a wonderful “blast from the past” I think the hysterical nature of parental obsession detailed within it almost comes across as too ludicrous to be true. But it’s definitely a book worth reading, because there’s plenty to mull over, and the characterisation, story-telling and structure of the novel are superb.