Twelve years ago, the day Jewel was born, her five-year-old brother, Bird, flung himself off a cliff thinking he could fly. Since that day, Grandpa hasn’t spoken a word, and he and Dad have devoted all their energy to protecting the home and family from Duppies—Jamaican spirits whose mission is to cause trouble. Meanwhile, Mom spends most days lost in sadness despite Jewel’s best efforts to cheer her up.
In an effort to get out from under the Bird-filled silence of her family, Jewel explores the woods and trails around her home, drawn especially to the cliff from which her brother jumped. She does all her exploring alone until her twelfth birthday, when she meets a new boy in the woods. That day, everything changes.
The real strength of Chicago author Crystal Chan’s debut novel lies in her rendering of its protagonist. Jewel’s first-person narrative voice is compelling and complex from the first page, and Chan does a beautiful job allowing readers to really inhabit that twelve-year-old mind, in which shades of gray are just beginning to appear between the black and white of right and wrong. Jewel’s friendship with the new boy, John, develops rapidly, and her emotions are, appropriately for her age, extreme and extremely honest. In Jewel and John we have two irresistible young voices guiding the story.
Bird becomes murky in its development of Jewel’s parents, whose turbulent relationship and wildly differing cultural and spiritual beliefs remain difficult to grasp, though they serve as the focal point of much of the novel’s conflict. Of course, the self-absorbed nature of their relationship underscores Jewel’s loneliness and heightens the credibility of her indignant complaints that nobody ever listens to her or tries to understand her behavior before punishing it. However, Mom’s and Dad’s fights about who is responsible for Bird’s death, about what Jewel should know about her father’s Jamaican spiritual beliefs (and the disorienting flurry of Aztec and Western Christian superstitions he also subscribes to), about how the home should be run, etc., feel too fresh and new for the twelfth anniversary of the tragedy, leaving the reader wondering why the adults haven’t at least come to some sort of impasse, even if they haven’t yet healed.
All in all, Bird is a highly compelling read for middle-grade audiences and older; adults will like this one, too. Chan’s prose is evocative and moving, and her young characters leap off the page as fully developed individuals with complex objectives and conflicts. Bird is a beautiful debut novel, and Chan’s is a literary voice to listen for in the future.
January 2014, Atheneum (S&S)
$16.99, hardcover, 295 pages
—Reviewed by Sarah Weber