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Booker Prize 2023: All the Little Bird-Hearts by Victoria Lloyd-Barlow

Sunday has quiet day and currently eats only white foods. She cannot drink anything that is not fizzy and feels best burying her hands in the soil at the greenhouse were she works. Having grown up being told to “just try harder”, rather than with an autism diagnosis and adequate support, Sunday has had to find her own systems to navigate social situations. The light of Sunday’s life is Dolly, her sixteen year old daughter who she has been raising on her own in the house where she has lived all her life. But Dolly is growing older and starts slipping out of her mother’s control and everything changes, when new neighbours move in for the summer.

Vita and Rollo have escaped “town” (London), to spend some time in the countryside. Vita is stunning, glamorous and incredibly posh. She brings all her wit and charm and steps into Sunday and Dolly’s life, uninvited but not unwelcome. Usually overwhelmed by other people, Sunday finds she gets on well with Vita who is, for one, extremely expressive, almost theatrical and therefore easier to read, and who also doesn’t care about what other perceive as Sunday’s oddities. Soon, the four fall into new routines, their lives intertwining as if they were a family. But slowly, something darker emerges and by the time Sunday realises what is happening it might just be too late for her to step in.

It is always an interesting dynamic, when, as a reader, you can see where the story is headed, where the tragedy awaits, while the protagonist cannot. With a first person perspective you won’t get this as often, because you know only what the narrator knows. But here, it is less about the information that is available to the narrator and therefore to the reader, and more how you interpret that information. It is fascinating, being invited into the mind of an autistic person, by an autistic author. A rare perspective and one written with great empathy in All the Little Bird-Hearts. Alongside Sunday, we learn how difficult it can be to decipher social clues, especially as she has trained herself not to do many of the things that might help her, like tapping out other people’s syllables.

But Sunday’s perspective is just one aspect of what makes Lloyd-Barlow’s debut novel such a rewarding read. It is also a truly moving story of a life lived and loved, despite all the challenges and all the pain. Sprinkled into the narrative are childhood memories that reveal all those moments of hurt and betrayal this shy and gentle woman has had to endure. To see how she has not been hardened by that but appreciates all her positive experiences, is heart-warming.

There are some things that don’t work as well in this novel and those are mostly to do with plotting. The pacing feels off at times, lingering too long on certain scenes while rushing through others. Also, I found it frustrating how unexpected and inexplicable certain characters behave (I don’t want to give too much away here). Of course, that may just be a realistic result of the narrator’s perspective, but it made for a somewhat unsatisfying reading experience.

Still, All the Little Bird-Hearts tells a strange and wonderful story of a life that is quiet but rich.

Published by Tinder Press, 2023

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