Angel Bird, by Sanjida O’Connell, tells the story of Niall, a zooligist who travels to a remote town on the north east coast of Ireland to study the behaviour of magpies. Niall’s father and grandfather were also zooligists and he feels he needs to prove his worth. Niall believes that much of any creature’s behaviour is genetically ordained and lives his life accordingly. When being in Ireland triggers forgotten memories from childhood he is forced to confront the reality of the choices he makes.
Niall moves into a small rented house in a town where everyone knows everybody else’s business. He discovers that magpies are seen as harbingers of doom in this place, the devil’s bird. Undeterred he sets up the bounds of his research, content to live a spartan life as he studies his subjects. To supplement the meagre fare he prepares for himself at home he cycles out to a restaurant once a week where he meets a young chef named Eddie. Although drawn, he waits for her to come to him.
Eddie moves in with Niall and fills his home with her clutter. This irritates Niall at times but he accepts the unasked for change. He has embarked on a clandestine affair with the daughter of a wealthy businessman who rides her horse through his research area. He acts according to instinct rather than sense.
Niall is suffering nightmares, flashbacks to images of a child who is drowning and a woman surrounded by blood. As his research and personal life start to unravel so too does his grip on reality. He flees what he believes to be a perilous situation, unable to differentiate between hallucination and what is happening in real life.
The writing is vivid with sinister undercurrents. Niall comes across as detached, suppressing emotion and accepting what is offered despite misgivings. The setting is evoked with detailed imagery. There is an assumption that the reader will have a knowledge of nature that I struggled with at times but this sets the scene for the important role the magpies have in the tale. The author has captured the sense of the place and the vernacular of the people. The detailed descriptions of food suggest she has a mastery well beyond mine.
The cruelties of nature are portrayed in sometimes sickening detail. I wondered why it was harder to read of the avian suffering than that of the people. All of this adds to the layers being unpeeled as Niall’s past is revealed and the reasons for his conduct become clear. We start to see him through other’s eyes as he begins to look candidly at himself.
An enjoyable read that offers much to consider regarding human behaviour. This is a love story but so much more. The science was intriguing adding an unusual but fascinating dimension. I will never look at magpies in the same way again.