Sunday Forrester isn't like the other people in her lakeside community, she stays to herself, she does things simply, and she tries very hard to observe the rules she's set out for herself. For a long time now life hasn't always worked out for the best but turned out the best way it possibly could under the circumstances. Sunday has no intention of making any changes, she's divorced, single, and doing just fine working at her former in-laws farm and sharing the raising of her 16 year old daughter with them. She almost doesn't say anything when she notices something in the backyard of her neighbor Tom's yard, only what if the woman she sees lying there is hurt and no one else is there to notice? She was just in the middle of going to investigate when the woman leapt to her feet and came to introduce herself-
Vita is nothing like the people in her community and Sunday doesn't know what to think when this brash woman enters her house and quickly begins a dialogue as if she's known her for ages. Even stranger, she doesn't question any of Sunday's quirks. If anything, she seems to welcome them and respond with her own.
This is how All the Little Bird-Hearts and the relationship between Sunday and Vita begins and we can't help but be pulled into both the narrative and their lives much the way Sunday and her daughter Dolly are. Charm and spontaneity are strong elements in Vita's life, particularly where it regards things that she wants, up to and including the attention and focus of others. She swoops into Sunday's life at random for some time and then pulls Sunday and Dolly into her and her husband' Rollo's life shortly thereafter, an act that pleases both of them and quickly consumes Dolly when she is invited to 'work' for them. As this progresses we learn more and more about Sunday and Vita herself, bit by bit discovering the depths of Sunday's past and the reasons for Rollo and Vita's flight from London into the English countryside. Is there more going on between Rollo and Vita than it seems? Are their intentions healthy in regard to Dolly and Sunday? Is Sunday's interpretation of her friends right or are they just one more group of people taking advantage of her differences for their own benefit?
Not only does Lloyd-Barlow get autism right she portrays the complex relationship between a nuerodivergent mother and her socially typical and affluent child quite nicely as well. We don't only see Sunday from an outer lens colored by our interpretations of her experience in All the Tiny Bird-Hearts, we find ourselves looking at things through her eyes and understanding both her own perspective and that of the people around her in layers, giving the book much more nuance. This is a book set in the 80s and has a feel that matches the era but also makes me think of novels and films set in the 60s, that sort of closed and small outlook that feels welcoming and mysterious in a quiet way and engages with you differently than a lot of literary books do. The characters are all very real here, we see them the way Sunday does and we gauge them with our own eyes and end up with a broader idea of them as people. I really liked how Sunday expresses the elements of her past in small stories that connect to the conversations and we get a feel for why she connects them together, whether through tangential ideas or through her affection for her beloved etiquette and Northern Italian myths books. Sunday is a very real person with her own understanding and we don't end up feeling like she's a luridly stereotype of an autistic person, we have sympathy for her views and empathy with her inability to fit with the world she grew up in. No, she doesn't always get it right but we also don't end up blaming her for her mistakes either. As a neurodivergent mother, it was nice to read a book that seemed to understand the ways that a mother with these complexities could both work with and not always grasp the things their child was dealing with.
I was pleased to be offered the opportunity to read and review All the Tiny Bird-Hearts by Algonquin Books and Netgalley, this was absolutely a good experience and I'll be keeping an eye out for other books from Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow in the future!
I lived for and loved a bird-heart that summer; I only knew it afterwards.
Sunday Forrester does things more carefully than most people. On certain days, she must eat only white food; she drinks only carbonated beverages; she avoids clocks. It's 1988, before autism was widely diagnosed. Sunday has an old etiquette handbook that guides her through confusing social situations, and to escape, she turns to her treasury of Sicilian folklore. The one thing very much out of her control is Dolly, her clever, headstrong teenage daughter, now on the cusp of leaving their home in the Lake District of England.
When the glamourous Vita and Rollo move in next door, the couple disarm Sunday with their charm, and proceed to deliciously break just about every rule in Sunday's book. Soon they are spending loads of time together, and Sunday feels acknowledged like never before. But underneath Vita and Rollo's allure lies something else, something darker. For Sunday has precisely what Vita has always wanted for herself: a daughter of her own.
A page-turning psychological drama, All the Little Bird-Hearts is an extraordinary, often witty glimpse into the mind of an autistic woman─and a remarkable debut by an author who is herself autistic. It is also an astute portrait of a woman coming to terms with the meaning of love, of motherhood, and of authenticity, and a poignant reminder about why accepting ourselves can be so freeing.
Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Kent. Like her protagonist, Sunday, in ALL THE LITTLE BIRD-HEARTS, Viktoria is autistic. She has presented her doctoral research internationally, most recently speaking at Harvard University on autism and literary narrative. Viktoria lives with her husband and children on the Kent coast.