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'All the Little Bird-Hearts' explores a mother-daughter relationship

Hachette Books

Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow's debut novel, All the Little Bird-Hearts, longlisted for the Booker Prize, explores how family relationships are woven, shredded, and sometimes repaired, particularly mother-daughter relationships.

The story is narrated by an autistic woman named Sunday. Lloyd-Barlow, a British writer, is herself autistic. She earned a PhD in creative writing from the University of Kent in England and speaks publicly about autism and literary narrative.

Lloyd-Barlow's prose is clean and understated. In a Booker Prize interview, she said she set her novel in the 1980s because depiction of autism at that time was "less fixed," allowing "Sunday an autonomy of expression which is vital to her eventual self-acceptance."

Sunday and her 16-year-old daughter Dolly live in England's Lake District. They have new neighbors, Vita and Rollo, a childless couple. Vita, who could charm a lamppost, insinuates herself into Sunday's life, then increasingly into Dolly's, with far-ranging consequences for mother and daughter.

As Vita becomes entangled with Dolly and Dolly begins distancing herself from her mother, Sunday relies on two sources for support. The first consists of adages from her father's Sicilian heritage and her reading on southern Italy. As a child, Sunday soothed herself by picking up her "Italian book in the darkness ... and [holding] it to my fast-beating heart as I recalled the various traditions to which the Southern Italians adhered."

Sunday's second source of advice is a volume called Etiquette for Ladies, which dispenses such sagacity as this one: Any insult "will fail to register if one ignores being excluded and manages to refrain from all enquiry, either directly or through a third party." The author's wry sense of humor shines in these passages.

Sunday's observations illuminate her life's trials. When she introduces herself to Vita, she takes a step backward: "I am constantly reversing away from people; the whole world is a revolving series of rooms I have walked into by mistake." Highly sensitive to smell, Sunday struggles to pick up other types of cues. She cannot decode Vita's expression: "The faces of new people are particularly unknowable and disorientating."

The more we know her, the more we empathize with Sunday's losses and hardships. We learn that she was married to, and then divorced from, a man she calls "the King." Her mother-in-law was horrified by the marriage, yet Sunday continues to work for her in-laws in their garden shop, seemingly employed out of pity for their granddaughter whom Sunday supports and raises alone.

These unvarnished truths, imparted page after page, map an accrual of psychic pain. Sunday's alone-ness is also loneliness. Yet this is not the whole story. Sunday is a woman capable of love and friendship. She is a doting, caring mother, and a wonderful friend to her co-worker at the plant nursery. The plants she cares for stand in as symbols of nourishment and renewal, even as Sunday's world disintegrates.

An intriguing aspect of All the Little Bird-Hearts is the reversal of characters' expected roles. Who is the child and who the adult? Vita, whom Sunday perceives as all glamor and good cheer, turns out to be infantile. "I'm lonely," Vita says late one night when she arrives at Sunday's without "hellos, just a bald announcement of her feelings and intentions. It was like communicating with a child."

Sunday, on the other hand, has been the sole caretaker and provider for Dolly, has held a job her entire adult life, and withstands the vicissitudes of adulthood with poise and generosity.

Lloyd-Barlow does not sugarcoat the cruelty of Sunday's mother, who favored Sunday's sister. The presentation of these realities is heartbreaking. "I realise now, that my mother could still have loved me, if she had chosen to. It is possible to know the oddities of people and to love them regardless. I want this to comfort me but it does not."

In acknowledging that she was unloved, Sunday considers whether it was because she was "peculiar." She reaches a different conclusion: "Ma witnessed in me, something that she found not simply different, but abhorrent."

The opportunity to inhabit Sunday's mind makes this book special. We experience the effort Sunday puts in to decipher social interactions, even the simplest. Her interpretations veer from the expected. Reading this firsthand depiction of autism in fiction is a rare literary delicacy. Lloyd-Barlow hopes that "the joys of the condition, as well as the challenges, are evident to readers...I would be happy...to see more autistic writing being celebrated."

In addition to exploring family relationships, Lloyd-Barlow plumbs the meaning of friendship. In the end, it is the "little bird-hearts," not Sunday, who lose out. Sunday notes that birds are traditionally banned from Sicilian households because "they are believed to bring the Evil Eye." Vita turns out to have a little bird-heart.

Lloyd-Barlow hopes other autistic writers will read her work and find it "authentic, even if it does not directly reflect their own experiences." Sunday's authenticity rings loud and clear; she triumphs in the end.

In visiting her world, we readers expand ours.

Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and was shortlisted for the Gotham Book Prize. Her second novel, Duet for One, is due out May 2025.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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