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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Johanna Sinisalo

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To purchase Birdbrain

Title: Birdbrain
Author: Johanna Sinisalo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 217 pages
Original in: Finnish
Availability: Birdbrain - US
Birdbrain - UK
Birdbrain - Canada
Birdbrain - India
Oiseau de malheur - France
  • Finnish title: Linnunaivot
  • Translated by David Hackston

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a take on the modern march into the 'heart of darkness'

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 1/4/2011 Eric Brown
Helsingin Sanomat A 30/9/2008 Jussi Ahlroth
Locus . 3/2011 Gary K. Wolfe

  From the Reviews:
  • "Birdbrain is a graphic examination of two very different people and a harrowing allegory of humankind's problematic relationship with the planet. That said, the story could have been told at half the length." - Eric Brown, The Guardian

  • "Tekstiin ilmestyy mystinen kolmas ääni, pahantekijä. Samaa menetelmää, kysymyksiä herättävää salaperäistä kertojaa, Sinisalo käytti myös edellisessä romaanissaan Lasisilmässä. Silloin jännitteen luomat odotukset kuihtuivat lopussa pettymykseksi. Nyt eivät. Loppu on kylmä, tehokas ja puhutteleva." - Jussi Ahlroth, Helsingin Sanomat

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Most of Birdbrain is presented in chapters which have brief alternating sections narrated by Finns Heidi and Jyrki while they travel through distant Australia and New Zealand in early 2007. Several of the chapters are not presented in strictly chronological order, and at the beginning of the novel the jumps back and forth cover greater periods -- the novel beginning in March, 2007 (near the end of the action) and then jumping back to April, 2006, when they first met -- before settling down into a story that unfolds chronologically. In addition, there are brief bits and accounts between the chapters themselves, printed in italics -- quotes from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (which Heidi read four or five time on the trip), as well as brief first-person accounts of a variety of generally anti-social behavior.
       Heidi works for a PR firm when she meets freelance-bartender Jyrki in 2006, and they quickly settle into an intimate relationship -- without imposing too much on each other's space too soon, helped by the fact that Jyrki gets sent to gigs all over Finland. He's saving up his money for a big trip, first to Oceania and then the United States, for six months. He's worried about the carbon footprint his flight to the other side of the world causes, but since he plans to spend his entire time hiking, he thinks he can balance things out. But while he and Heidi have been getting close, it doesn't even at first occur to him to ask her whether she wants to join him. When she brings it up, however, he lets himself be convinced.
       It's not quite as easy for Heidi to just up and leave for six months, but she's willing, even eager to do it (and doesn't even let on to Jyrki what a sacrifice it is); she has some family issues, and she's also open to a little adventure -- and doesn't like the idea of six month's separation from the new guy in her life.
       With its quickly alternating narrative, shuttling the reader back and forth between the two young lovers' perspectives, it's amusing to follow the two minds at work, and how they see things. The trip means they are nearly constantly very close, but the physical and logistical hardships prevent almost any sort of normal being together. Jykri is repeatedly surprised by just how game Heidi is, and that she's also not much of a whiner (though she does voice some complaints). Heidi, meanwhile, acknowledges Jykri's detailed and careful planning -- but much of it also enervates her (such as his precise shopping lists, weighed to the last gram so that they don't lug anything excess along).
       Jykri has grand hiking plans -- and all the latest equipment -- and they set off on various increasingly challenging trails. It all requires detailed planning -- reservations are necessary for many of the trails, with the limited spaces in the various rest huts, for example. In addition, Jykri is also punctilious about how one is supposed to behave here, from washing (no getting soap in the local rivers !) to the disposal of garbage.
       Birdbrain is, in fact, meant to be an eco-thriller, a warning of what man has done to nature -- and nature's revenge. Even on the trails in the largely unspoilt areas of Australia and New Zealand, where there are few other hikers, the ravages (and the litter) can be found. In his attempt to get ever farther away from all that is civilization, Jykri also brings them ever closer to ... well, the heart of darkness, as the effects of civilization have now become inescapable (which, in at least one respect, they must be really, really happy about at the end ...).
       Sinisalo presents this all very well, though the endless hiking can get a bit tiresome. Still, with these two voices and the jumps in time and place (even as these diminish towards the end) she keeps a decent pace up throughout -- with a nice sense of menace hovering nearby throughout. The descriptions of nature and Heidi and Jyrki's struggle against and within it are certainly good.
       Australia is a good setting for much of this too, with the environmental degradation caused by human activity the catastrophe that makes for the grand-scale backdrop for the story. Sprinkled throughout, too, there are scenes showing how much has gone wrong -- and warning signs, like a mention of the predatory eucalyptus that has adapted to fire as: "a kind of suicide bomber", able to rise from the ashes "with no competition whatsoever". A nice touch too are the adaptable and intelligent kea birds -- mountain parrots that show extraordinary skill and curiosity, and damage their environment much like humans do (except that they also manage to annoy humans a lot while they're at it). The 'birdbrain' of the title refers to both the kea's much more impressive than expected brain, as well as the often foolish and destructive -- birdbrained -- activity of humans, which turn out to be very similar.
       Sinisalo perhaps gets a bit too fancy in the telling of her story -- the Conradian echoes are so loud that, yes, there are cries of "The horror ! The horror ! at the end -- and the other voices, aside from Heidi and Jykri, seem like unnecessary padding, but it makes for a decent, unsettling tale. It's also a morality play that beats its message home at every point, but Sinisalo does that reasonably well, too, adding enough other variety to the larger story that it doesn't come across as insufferable.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 January 2012

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Birdbrain: Reviews: Johanna Sinisalo: Other books by Johanna Sinisalo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo was born in 1958.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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