Book review: Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer

A beautifully imaginative novel that delves into one woman’s life and her extraordinary relationship with birds

 

Gwendolen ‘Len’ Howard was forty years old when she decided to leave her life and loves in London behind, retire to the English countryside and devote the rest of her days to her one true passion: birds.  Moving to a small cottage (Bird Cottage) in amongst the Sussex Downs, she wrote two bestselling novels which astonished the world with her observations on the tits, robins, sparrows, and other birds that lived nearby.  Not only did they live in the hedges and trees close to her house, but the birds also flew freely in and out of her windows and would even perch on her shoulder as she typed.  This moving novel imagines the story of this remarkable woman’s decision to defy society’s expectations, and the joy she drew from her extraordinary relationship with British garden birds.

 

The opening of this book was both exciting and emotional, and that completely intrigued me to read on and find out more about the relationship between Len Howard and British garden birds.  I have always enjoyed observing birds in my own garden, but there is something truly special, almost magical about the connection between the various species of birds and Len, particularly the great tits that visit her garden.

 

This is a wonderful piece of creative literature that imagines Len’s life, thoughts, and feelings towards birds.  It is not an autobiography as such but is more an imaginative fictional autobiography as Meijer visualises herself as Len, although there are facts from Len’s life and her writings mixed with the fictional elements throughout.  This combination renders Bird Cottage very heart-warming to read, and the first-person narration additionally allows you to imagine yourself as Len and envisage the intimate interactions with such a variety of birds, from robins and blackbirds, to sparrows and great tits.

 

I found it particularly lovely how Len names individual birds, from Charles the crow, to Star the great tit, as if they are members of an extended family only to her.  Each bird has its own unique colouring and characteristics, very much like humans in our appearances and behaviours.  The activities of the birds within Len’s house are utterly astonishing as they feed from her hand and perch on her shoulder; it is almost like something out of a Disney film – think Cinderella or Snow White – but the fact that this is true, makes this book even more amazing.

 

The ‘Star’ chapters throughout are really fascinating in terms of the factual information that is provided about certain bird species, the great tits in particular.  It is awe-inspiring how Len not only attempts to train great tits to copy her tapping a specific number of times, but also that they sometimes actually respond accordingly.  It makes you wonder about the intelligence of birds and opens the door of curiosity as there is evidently still so much to learn about them.

 

Overall, Bird Cottage is a beautifully imaginative novel that delves into one woman’s life and her extraordinary relationship with birds.  Mixing fact and fiction, Meijer does a superb job of bringing the birds to life so that they jump off the pages as you imagine their intimate interactions with Len.

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