Birds of Paradise

Book cover: Birds of Paradise - Oliver K LangmeadThe First Man still walks the Earth, but time has taken its toll. Adam finds it hard to relate to his mortal children, hard to engage with the world. When he finds a fragment of Eden, it gives him new purpose. Can Paradise be rebuilt? Who should inherit it?

We meet Adam working in Hollywood, although he doesn’t like movies much. He prefers the ambiguity of books, where he can ‘be the director of the story’. It’s a well-observed lead into what to expect: a loner who doesn’t take instruction well, who acts on impulse and without fear of consequences because in a very real way there aren’t any for him.

I was made before death.

When he clubs the scriptwriter to death at a premiere, Adam is arrested on the spot and thrown into jail. Neither the killing nor the incarceration bother him, particularly. He longs to tend plants in his garden, but prison will at least give him time and space to read.

But the Corvid family has other plans for Adam.

Adam is not the only survivor of Eden. No creature that was made before death dies of sickness or old age. All have learnt to take human shape to conceal their nature and live in plain sight. Rook heads up respected law firm Corvid & Corvid, specialists in concealing Eden’s survivors (the paperwork required these days, honestly). His wayward brother Magpie has recently begun spending Rook’s money fast enough to make him wonder what he’s up to, so Rook arranges for Adam’s escape and sets Adam, Crow and Owl to find out.

Birds of Paradise is many things: a surreal roadtrip, a heist, a grief-driven vendetta, a study of hope and friendship. Dreamy reveries of days past and bemused interactions with the modern world are punctuated by violence that I can only call Biblical: an eye for an eye, meted out without hesitation or remorse. You don’t cross Adam or the birds. They will destroy you without a second thought – physically or financially (hey, it’s one way to fund Corvid & Corvid). At least Adam will usually end it quickly; he doesn’t have the malice or attention span of Rook except in the face of extreme provocation. The violence is always brief and to the point, although Langmead did enough to have me shuddering at its consequences without dwelling on them (Owl. Bloody hell, Owl).

It’s contrasted with moving moments of great beauty, showing a softer, warmer side to its timeless outsiders: Pig and Butterfly’s gentle friendship and love of simple things; Adam taking the time to admire flowers or the colours of his friends’ plumage; Magpie pausing to be kind to children in a half-empty shopping centre (the only positive interaction I think we see between the creatures and humanity). However urgent the plot may supposedly be, the narrative is never afraid to take its time, experiencing it on its protagonist’s eternal terms.

It seems only appropriate that the villain is a rich old man obsessed with his right to exercise Man’s God-granted dominion. He has the funds and the grudges to go toe to toe with the Corvids, determined to build his own (well-heated) Eden where he and his friends can wander naked and pretend at immortality. He’s all arrogant privilege, personifying humanity’s destructive impact on the natural world: he doesn’t deserve to inherit Eden, but he feels entitled to. He’s very easy to hate, which was useful given how hard I found it to like Adam.

Much is made of Adam’s thorn bush of memory, all gaps and dissociation to protect him from layers of loss accreted through the millennia. While he wears his physical scars proudly, he has buried emotional and psychological trauma. I wanted to empathise with this lonely, damaged man, I was too suspicious of the gaping absence of Eve (why yes, I am cynical about the ways in which female characters are used to service men’s emotional journeys in fiction).

Birds of Paradise is my second encounter with the gorgeously atmospheric prose of Oliver K Langmead; once again he conjures an otherworldly air that perfectly suits his tale of beings outside of time. If I felt a creeping loss of trust at where it was going, this was ultimately undeserved (sorry Mr Langmead, I should have had more faith). While there were no real surprises in the final act, context is king and I did find compassion for Adam at the end even if I remained largely disengaged from his emotional journey (sorry Adam).

I thought I’d trip up over the Biblical roots of this story more often; rest assured (or be warned if that’s your jam) that this never feels religious. Instead, it’s a beautifully written tale of the things that keep us going and the things we’ll do for those we love, told through the lens of those who seem far more human than the heartless adults we largely see them interact with. It’s worth noting that I never felt Langmead had written off humanity wholesale: the trickster Magpie consistently brings moments of everyday life into brief focus (the uninvited wedding guest, the kids playing football on his grounds), reminding us that the world is not in fact dominated by the likes of Sinclair – the challenge is not to let it be shaped by them.

Strap in for an unusual fable as one man tries to come to terms with a past too heavy to bear, and find the energy to build a future for those he loves.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.