It is not at all unusual for me to cry while reading a book. Or any time, really. It’s kind of who I am, a real crier. And when I am extremely invested in characters and the situations they find themselves in, becoming emotional (aka a hot mess) is not much of a stretch for me. What really does it though is when I think I have my act together and that I will be totally prepared for whatever outcomes the author has planned in kind of a cocky “I’ve got this, I see where this is going” kind of way, but then what happens is that I actually don’t know and I am completely surprised by a turn of events that is so sudden and so extreme and that’s where the big, big feelings come in. Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout was exactly this kind of book.
Dawn Woodward is a soprano, on voice rest after a sort of crash and burn performance in Tosca that made its way – because this is the 21st century after all – to YouTube and other social media platforms, and the worry is that it might have been a career-ending move. She spends her days reliving and rewatching what could potentially be her final performance, rarely leaving the house, sinking ever lower with each rewatch. The stress of this adds additional strain on her marriage, a strain further enhanced by the arrival of her husband Ashraf’s somewhat estranged brother Tariq, recently separated from his wife and beginning treatment for cancer. Ash has asked them – Tariq and his African grey parrot, Tulip – to move into their house while Tariq undergoes treatment.
As part of her contract, while she isn’t singing, Dawn is required to teach at a local community college. The course she has been given, much to her anger and frustration, is a course on whistling. Her students, are a hodgepodge of whistlers known as The Warblers, a group they tell her proudly, that has been in existence for decades prior to Dawn’s arrival, and she learns they are preparing for their Biennial, an every-other-year whistling competition. Their plan is to whistle operatic arias which will give them an edge over their competition. This is, of course, where Dawn comes in.
In true diva form, Dawn resents the appointment, feeling it beneath her, but when Tariq and Tulip join the class, both Tariq’s easygoing, friendly demeanour and the antics of his quirky bird quickly make an impression on The Warblers and as Dawn begins to warm to them, she also hesitantly begins to develop a deep and meaningful friendship with Tariq.
I really loved this book for its quiet grace, subtle humour and its quirky cast of characters who appear to be so very different on the surface, but who have more in common than they really would like to believe or admit. I also loved Dawn’s growth throughout, her aching for something that seems just out of reach, something that she can’t quite yet name, and I loved that a merry band of whistlers helps her determine what she needs and how to find the strength required to attain it. This really is the perfect touch.
There is so much to love about this book, and I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special mention to Tulip the parrot, a diva in her own right. It can be challenging to include animal characters in novels without resorting to tropes or cliches, but Berkhout has made Tulip, Tariq’s companion and sort of protector, an extremely important part of the story and a true delight.
Why Birds Sing is just so lovely. Nina Berkhout has written a gorgeous, multi-layered novel that illustrates the beauty that can be revealed when the collapsing of one life leads to the building of another. Especially once you understand what exactly it is that you’re living for.
My thanks to ECW Press for the ARC and for the opportunity to review this wonderful novel.