It was the summer he turned twelve, after his failed attempts to save the fox kits, that he began collecting bones, scouring the grass and pine duff for tracks and finding deer skulls, a pelvis, a sprocket-like vertebrae, the bones reassuringly solid in his hands.
–excerpt from The Afterlife of Birds by Elizabeth Philips
Henry is an introvert. He leads a fairly simple and solitary existence; works at a mechanic garage for wages and collects bones to assemble into bird skeletons for fun. He lives alone, quietly playing different supporting roles for the few people he’s close to: his running-obsessed brother, Dan; his brother’s girlfriend, Rae; and Mrs. Bogdanov, an elderly lady who feeds him stories from her family’s past in Russia alongside her cake and tea.
Henry, the central character in Elizabeth Philips’ debut novel The Afterlife of Birds, is a decidedly unassuming protagonist. However, as we start to piece together who this rather ordinary person is, we find out that Henry, like one of his bird skeletons, is really an essential frame upon which many moving parts remain intact.
Other than his extensive collection of bird bones, Henry is a fairly tame personality to tie an entire book around. Even his acute interest in bird skeletons, while maybe a little peculiar, is relatable in some form to the odd quirks each of us have.
The other people in Philips’ novel seem to be much more ambitious, extreme or outgoing. However, it is Henry’s ordinary nature that makes him so approachable to the audience.
The story begins with Henry in a hard spot. His girlfriend just left him, his brother, Dan, has taken up an unhealthy obsession with running and now Dan’s girlfriend, Rae, seems to be withering away.
On top of this, Henry’s mom is looking to sell her business and retire, but her one employee, Marcie, just got pregnant. Their lives are fluttering around him, but Henry remains persistently stable and dependable. Then, as each one of them turns to him in need, Henry finds the subtle calm of his life growing into a whole new beast.
While The Afterlife of Birds is the Saskatchewan author’s first long-form novel, Philips has published four books of poetry and received several awards and recognition for her prose. Her poetic background is evident in the beautifully detailed ways that she renders scenes off the page.
Outside of these highly-developed ambient sketches, she remains detached from certain specifics. For example, we are not introduced to Henry at any point, but involved in his life right from the first page; it wasn’t until well into the book that I felt I understood who Henry was and how he got there.
Similarly, Philips doesn’t transition through time smoothly, jumping one month to the next, but this does help move the story’s timeline quickly. The only negative being that, at times, some events were passed over a little quickly and it wasn’t always clear if these little gaps, loosely held together, were of great importance or not.
What I really drew from, and appreciated in, The Afterlife of Birds was the indirect metaphor of anatomy and relationships. The more decorative characters, like the plumage on birds, are attractive in their distractions, but they live as external beings. And their relationships require a strong, stable internal force to keep all the moving parts together. And, in this novel, that unseen skeleton is the rather unobtrusive, run-of-the-mill fellow: Henry.
A lovely Canadian read, The Afterlife of Birds is an imaginative character portrait full of linguistic artistry.