This is Maire Fisher’s first novel and I have been waiting for it for ten years. I know Maire, you see, and have watched her mold her writing in those brief moments she has managed to snatch out of her busy life. Although she is a friend of mine, I must assure you that I am not just giving this a positive review because of the friendship. This is truly a very readable, likeable novel that I would have read in one sitting if I had had the time.
The main character is Bird, the youngest of five children in a family that lives in an old mansion (called Marchbanks) on the cliffs above a Cape Town seaside town. On the top floor of the house lives Ma Bess, Bird’s grandmother, who never comes downstairs yet rules Marchbanks from above. She is a nasty old tyrant, reminiscent of Miss Havisham, who is beastly to all and sundry who venture into her dark bedroom. The children know all about their parents lives and love hearing about how their father wooed their mother, yet they know nothing about Ma Bess and why she lives a reclusive life.
Soon after the book starts, Bird’s 10-year-old twin brothers go missing and, in her refusal to believe that her brothers have gone forever, Bird starts a diary in which she tells her brothers what’s going on in the family so they don’t miss out it. This literary device can go horribly wrong and become tedious, but in this novel it works well and becomes a credible source through which we learn about the family – Bird has an all-seeing eye that reveals the humour, vulnerabilities and ultimately the truths about this complicated family.
One of the things that I liked about this novel is that Fisher never shies away from the nasty side of life. It would be easy for her to gloss over the boys’ disappearance and to bring them back to the family for a happy ending, but she doesn’t. This gives a balance to the story and makes it more like life – filled with humour, pathos, tragedy, love and loss.
What makes this novel so delightful is, not only is it set in Cape Town, but it has a wonderfully authentic young narrator who brings a freshness to the prose. Writing from a child’s point of view is never easy – bringing in the naivety, vulnerability and honesty of a young character – and sometimes authors get it wrong, but Fisher maintains the girl’s voice throughout and by the end of the book, I wished I could hear more from her.