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Birds of Paradise

Review by Kit Spink

A Review by Kit Spink

Oliver K. Langmead
Titan Books (2021) £8.99

As a piece of speculative fiction, Birds of Paradise is a kind of thought experiment for exploring a question – in this case, ‘What if you were made before death’. It takes as its premise the idea that Adam, the first man, cannot die and has lived until the present day. There are flashes to other times (Roman, Egyptian, Celtic) as he struggles to piece together all that has happened to him, though the story largely follows him inhabiting and reflecting on the modern world.

These reflections on place are well done, a good chance to experience the many locations visited – a lot of travel happens in this book – through the eyes of someone who has seen cities like Glasgow & Edinburgh rise ever upward. But it is the reflections on mortality that are the real interest of the novel. There is something despairing, weighty, and oddly human in Adam’s sense of his own immortality. He seems world-weary to the extreme, having lived through so much that he often struggles to remember anything, let alone anything new sticking. Weeks are confused with days as he is unable to experience any kinship with the modern humans that may be his descendants though are far removed from the placid gardener he is in essence.

This listlessness does little to drive on the plot, so a cast of characters emerges in other beings that have survived since Eden. These ‘first animals’ seem to be the only creatures Adam has time for, and in their desires and need for Adam’s strength so comes a globetrotting plot we can follow. It could be said that the plot is a little filmic at times, something that’s at odds with Adam’s slow pace and tender observations, and the cast of animals often sits on the edge of caricature, but these are issues down to personal taste.

The cover recommends the book to fans of Neil Gaiman, and there are clear resonances with American Gods – both in theme, style, and tone. Yet the novel remains wholly original, with interlaced metaphor throughout of fruit ripening, maturing, rotting, of knowledge and of trees; all the things that have brought Adam to this point. The writing manages this without ever seeming theological, and within the narrative there are deeper questions of free will – for despite being placid at heart and seeking peace, Adam brings about a lot of violent death – all of which are there for the reader to ponder without it ever feeling hard work. That Adam is black and therefore not what many of the human antagonists expect or can comfortably handle is a commendable, important choice that is done well, with a light hand.

The most refreshing aspect of the novel is one that develops gradually on reading. This is the shift in perspective we gain from Adam’s point of view, a shift away from the modern idea of progress – that we are societally moving towards something greater – seeing instead the more traditional perspective that we are moving ever further from paradise. In writing Adam as being a green-fingered and compassionate character rather than one that assumes his dominion over other species, we gain a measured, almost objective view on all that humans have done and continue to do to the world. If this were a thought experiment perhaps the result would be embedded within this: in being granted the wisdom Adam’s ages of experience affords and seeing that if we fought and took less, and grew more gardens, perhaps we would find a more harmonious world.

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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