Book review: The Yellow Bird Sings by Jennifer Rosner

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

If you have even a shred of your humanity intact, you cannot help but be deeply and profoundly moved by the emotionally powerful but nuanced storytelling in Jennifer Rosner’s debut novel The Yellow Bird Sings.

Told with an elegant simplicity that belies its complex, at times (many times) heartbreaking material, The Yellow Bird Sings beautifully adds to the canon of Holocaust literature in a way that expands perspective without once diminishing the impact of one of the darkest periods in human history.

On the surface, the story of Jewish mother Róża and daughter Shira is a simple one – driven from their apartment in Gracja, Poland in the summer of 1941 after German troops enact terrible losses upon her immediate family, they have little choice but to shelter under the hay in the attic of farmers Henryk and Krystyna where they have little choice to stay wholly and unnaturally silent.

It exacts a terrible on both of them, but mostly as you might expect on five-year-old Shira who is bursting with music and the need to express it, a legacy of being born into a family of music instrument makers and violin players, and who struggles despite being impeccably well-behaved with staying as quiet as their perilous situation demands.

To cope with with this almost intolerable situation – the only thing that makes it tolerable is that it is keeping them alive, something Shira understands on some deeper level – Shira imagines all her musical urges, her need to race about, sing, dance and play is channelled into a yellow bird which she holds close to her until it needs to fly free and make the music denied to the girl who shepherds it closely.

“She setles back into the hay and tries again to be still until notes, snippets of song, and soon whole passages take shape and pulse through her, quiet at first, then building in intensity and growing louder. A story told with strings and woodwinds: a glacial night, a flickering fire, sounds like black water beneath bright ice, basses and timpani and a violin’s yearnings, and finally, a crescendo, the frozen earth cracking—

Her mother waves an arm, her forehead furrowed. Shira realizes she is tapping again.” (P. 13)

It is an impossibly beautiful and deeply affecting image because it reinforces in near-palpable ways what it would be like to have everything taken from you and then have to take still more from yourself in order to stay alive.

It is survival in its rarest, most immediate and necessary sense, and we come to understand how great a toll it takes on Róża, who is awash in a grief she cannot explain to anyone, least of all her daughter, and Shira who can only imagine what it would be like to be back in her grandfather’s violin workshop or making music in the parlour of her family’s apartment.

We are given some insight into the tragedies that have befallen Róża’s family, but much of the pain and loss she has experienced is conveyed by what she has had to give up in order to simply stay alive.

Róża, like anyone would, is grateful for the tenuous hospitality extended to her by Henryk and Krystyna who are taking a huge gamble in sheltering Jews; if discovered, the presence of Róża and Shira in their barn would bring forth immediate and horrific retribution by the Germans who patrol the area in which the farm sits with a fearful relentlessness.

In some ways, the sheer claustrophobia of Róża and Shira’s existence resembles that of Emma Donoghue’s Room in which a mother is works valiantly to craft a magical existence for her child in the midst of the most evil of situations.

Jennifer Rosner (image courtesy Goodreads)

Similarly, but in a landscape where the loss of freedom and love and music and all things good feels bear total, Róża, limited by strict and unyielding curbs of expression, sound and movement, works hard to make an impossible situation as bearable as she can for her daughter who is admirably cooperative even as she struggles to understand why they can’t go back to their home and family.

Róża reads books in a whisper to Shira, writes music out on scrounged paper and communicate in a sign language that allows them to at least talk to each other, even as they are cut off from the world around them.

It is far from an ideal world in which they live but with a mother’s love and determination, Róża does her best to shield Shira from the worst of the broken world around them and salvage some innocence where very little remains.

When an opportunity presents itself that would allow Shira to be a normal noisy girl again, Róża is torn – she wants the very best for her daughter but the cost will be great and she fears letting Shira out of grasp when there is so much that is unpredictable and unknown about a world that used to be so beautiful and known.

“She tries to soothe herself by filling her head with her mother’s voice—the only sound that comforted her in danger. The particular lilt and catch when she whisper-sang about the hen who brought glasses of tea to her chicks. Cucuricoo! Di mom iz nisht do … Her mother would speak to her in many languages. Polish. Russian, German. Ukrainian. But always, she sang in Yiddish, in notes lyrical and haunting.” (P. 127)

The Yellow Bird Sings is an achingly moving tribute to the deep-seated bonds between mother and daughter, bonds which somehow survive a seemingly neverending torrent of travails and challenges, and persist in the face of events so terrible that no parent or child should have to endure them, much less make impossible decision after impossible decision in the face of them.

For a book that takes places in so much darkness and the most base places of the human experience, The Yellow Bird Sings finds joy in the quiet moments and in the responses of both Róża and Shira to a series of events which test their resilience, their spirits and their capacity to keep living life when everything seems inimically opposed to its continuance.

Rosner writes with unstinting honesty about the terrors of a world given over to darkness and nightmarish ideologies but also to the capacity of people to choose the very best of things and the most admirable course of action in the face in the very worst of circumstances.

That she manages to balance these two extremes without diminishing the impact of either of them is testament to Rosner’s emotionally evocative, layered writing which captivates through much of the novel’s more interior moments and compels you to keep reading so resonant are the pain and joy of Róża and Shira’s truncated and then ripped asunder lives.

The Yellow Bird Sings is exquisitely beautiful, terrifyingly dark and uplifting, daring to put forward the entirely authentic idea that even in the very darkest of times when most people, out of convenience or fear, have made their pact with the devil, damning their souls to keep their bodies safe, that there are others who will stand up to abominable ideologies, abhorrent beliefs and monstrous actions and in so doing create some remarkably beautiful in a place where beauty and the more inspiring parts of the human spirit have long ceased to have any recognisable currency.

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