Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2021
Cover design Lisa White
Stephanie Parkyn has chosen the failing years of the Napoleonic Empire as the period for this historical fiction, a sweeping tale of cultural theft, love and betrayal, abandonment and refuge.
The story follows the fortunes of storytellers Rémi and Pascal, whom we first meet as orphans working in the comedia dell’arte theatre of Gianni. They are soon joined by Saskia, a Russian travelling circus performer who had been kidnapped and mistreated by a mysterious religious Father.
Against the backdrop of constant battle in this time of annexations and expansionism is a tale of the importance of theatre arts as an expression of cultural identity.
As they travel about the countryside, the Frenchmen encounter increasing hostility towards France and the Emperor Napoleon from the Germanic people whose lands have been taken. The banning of the subversive theatrical form of the comedia is an act of suppression aimed at denigrating and belittling the whole Italianate society.
Meanwhile conscription drives men and boys to flee and women to hide their sons – as Rémi’s suddenly appearing mother does early in the story. The writing is on the wall for Napoleon and in the wake of defeat comes brutality and desperation.
This story is cleverly constructed with personal themes of the yearning and search for family set in tense parallel with the bigger field of imperial folly. Our emotional investment in the main protagonists of this tale comes swiftly, as all the most basic of human fears and desires are evident in their separate and combined stories.
All are assumed to be orphans, all suffer both abandonment and confinement, violence and the terrors of the open road. Again and again those they should be able to trust prove false. Again and again they allow their love for another to decide their own fate no matter the cost.
Swept up as we are by the author’s narrative and flawed heroes and heroine, we are always conscious of the cultural rape inherent in imperial expansion. We are also always aware of the centrality of storytelling to the keeping of identity. Put so eloquently by Columbina: (page 209) ‘Art is our life.
Art lifts us above the fields where the animals feed and fuck. It gives us colour when all else is mud…Art binds us to one another and reminds us why we live. We must be able to perform our stories or how will we remember who we are.’
Against this fervent defence of the storytelling arts, we see the beginnings of the printed word in the publication by the Brothers Grimm of their collected fairy tales; here is an identity crisis for our heroes whose livelihood is threatened, they believe, by the march of modernity. Will people still want to hear stories when they can read them themselves in their own homes? It’s a bitter irony that the spread of the written word, of general literacy yet so far in the future, is a weapon of both hope and despair.
What a very fine book this is! The story gathers us and sweeps us along at a cracking pace. We care about the people of the book, feeling the primal fears of orphanhood and confinement, of cruelty and abandonment. We feel so acutely the pain of the socially oppressed, of the women and mothers subject to violence and neglect. We feel the shock of war, its futility and filth.
As part of Stephanie Parkyn’s trilogy focussed on Napoleonic times, The Freedom of Birds gives the little people (the so called ‘common man’) voice. What great suffering the acts of generals and governments cause for the men, women and children who fall in their wake! What great love we are capable of as human beings!
Thank you Allen & Unwin for my review copy and Stephanie for an interesting conversation giving us insight into your work.