The Birds Tarjei Vesaas book review literary fiction workshops

Difficulty Categorizing This Book

I have never read a book quite like this before. Perhaps that’s because it was written by a Norwegian author. Or perhaps it’s because of the original publication year (1957). Despite the novel’s tiny cast and contained setting, I found that I did not want to put it down. Ironically, there was enough going on in the character Mattis’s head that I was thoroughly intrigued almost from the beginning. I say ironically because Mattis is a person of low intellect. He is not mentally handicapped in the stereotypical way we often think of—a person with Down’s syndrome, for instance—he appears outwardly as a normal person. But his brain does not process thoughts like an ordinary adult.

Mattis is a Childlike Narrator

Vesaas writes the novel in a close third-person, almost entirely from Mattis’s perspective. As writers, we are often advised against writing from the exclusive perspective of a child because of the serious limitations in language and insight; however, what Vesaas has done is at least equally as difficult as writing from a child’s perspective, if not even more so. Mattis has lived nearly forty years with the mind and attitude of a child, and he is very conscious that he does not act the way he is expected to. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to express the warring emotions within Mattis—to convey his self-loathing for being too childlike simultaneously with his frequent childish glee at the mundane and his occasional temper tantrums.

Compelling, Realistic Characters

At first, I found myself siding with Mattis when his sister Hege, who takes care of him, would snap at him or say mean things, but then I became frustrated for her, seeing things from her perspective: decades of service for this man—her brother—who could not do a thing for himself, who has not done a thing for her either. It became clear that Hege’s and Mattis’s happiness could not coexist. The one would negate the other. It’s also worth noting that, although Vesaas writes primarily from Mattis’s perspective, and never leaves his presence, he does at times give us a sentence or two of Hege’s emotional state, particularly when in the midst of an argument or emotional discussion with Mattis. For instance, on page 85, “She came straight out of bed, disheveled and deep in her own thoughts, and frightened of whatever Mattis was so upset about.” These one-sentence perspective shifts give the reader a little more insight into Hege’s mental state and how her brother affects her life and her moods.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene is when Mattis overhears Hege crying in her bedroom and he tries to comprehend her crisis of identity. “I just don’t know why I’m alive,” she tells him. And he says, perplexed, “It’s you who keep me alive, you know (pg 99).” For much of the book, Mattis strives to understand not only his sister Hege, but everyone around him. That is the tragedy of the novel—Mattis’s fundamental misunderstanding of those around him. This misunderstanding is especially poignant when he feels he does understand, or comes close to understanding, though the reader is aware that he in fact has completely missed the mark.

Emotional Nuance

The level of emotional nuance Vesaas wrote into Mattis’s character is astounding. Mattis is at once child, awkward teen, and younger brother trying to understand his older sister’s personal crisis. While Mattis’s reactions to the situations he finds himself in are often extreme, the reader can relate to similar feelings and personal battles that were perhaps not indulged in the same way but were nonetheless present. In many ways, Mattis is the secret self of every adult. He is the naïveté we leave behind when we gain experience and understanding of what’s culturally appropriate. Despite his own self-loathing, Mattis is, in some ways, the person we all wish we could be from time to time. Even Hege, at one point, tells Mattis how lucky he is to have not a care in the world, to be able to appreciate the inconsequential, to find happiness in something as lowly as a woodcock.