The Yellow Bird Sings…
About the Book:
Poland, 1941. After the Jews in their town are rounded up, Róza and her five-year-old daughter, Shira, spend day and night hidden in a farmer’s barn. Forbidden from making a sound, only the yellow bird from her mother’s stories can sing the melodies Shira composes in her head.
Róza does all she can to take care of Shira and shield her from the horrors of the outside world. They play silent games and invent their own sign language. But then the day comes when their haven is no longer safe, and Róza must face an impossible choice: whether to keep her daughter close by her side, or give her the chance to survive by letting her go . . .
The Yellow Bird Sings is a powerfully gripping and deeply moving novel about the unbreakable bond between parent and child and the triumph of humanity and hope in even the darkest circumstances.
Fair warning: I’m sharing more quotes than usual with this one, because once again, I have been almost struck dumb by the beauty and brilliance of a novel. Isn’t it remarkable how the right combination of words strung together to articulate a certain story can have such a profound effect on some people? As you’ll now be familiar with from previous reviews, music reaches me at a whole other level when blended with literature. And so it is with The Yellow Bird Sings, a novel so achingly beautiful that it managed to destroy me while lifting my heart, the story sinking deep within, so much so, it’s taken me days to get my thoughts together for this review. They still might not be all too coherent, but I’ll give it a shot.
As we all live out our days within our own house and yard, venturing out only when necessary, many of us are feeling the walls closing in around us, an urge to do things we can’t, to visit places that are closed (not me, but I am seeing evidence of this on my social media and within my own house). Imagine though, that instead of having to stay in your own little patch of suburbia, you and your five year old child were instead contained to the loft of a barn, forced to hide under mounds of hay for hours on end, speaking only in whispers, eating, sleeping, relieving yourself, passing 24 hours, 7 days a week, in a small loft. No exercise. No entertainment. Only fear and mercy from those hiding you. Not for a day, a week, or even a month, but for more than a year. Four hundred and sixty odd days of this.
‘As soon as they spot her, the children swarm her at once and stare. Zosia shifts soundlessly from foot to foot, unaccustomed to being looked at. A lone girl greets her with “Hallo,” but Zosia’s voice chokes. Words, to Zosia, are like glass beads around her neck. If one were to break loose, they would all clatter to the floor and scatter, shatter the quiet that kept her and her mother alive, entwined beneath hay.’
That’s only the first part of this novel though, and as remarkable as it is, it just moves to a new level of remarkable once mother and daughter are no longer in hiding in the barn. This is a story of absolute endurance and survival, about making connections and alliances in an effort to save your life so that you can in turn save the life of the one you love; the only one you have left. The story splits about a third of the way in, and we then follow the separate journeys that Róza and her daughter are forced to take, further and further apart, connected by an invisible chain of daisies and a metaphorical little yellow bird that sings. There is no glamour in this story and the heroics are more of the quiet sort performed by people who allow morals and conscience to weigh greater than fear. Likewise, the prose is spare and to the point, although infused with a lyrical quality that makes it both easy to read and heartbreaking to decipher. The story itself is awe inspiring, based more on the collective war experiences of many, than just on one person.
‘All three of them are stained with dirt, their hair matted and itchy from lice, their faces sunken and gaunt, their lips swollen and cracking. As mirrors for one another, they offer no comfort. But the focus is on movement and on food. The thaw coaxes new shoots from the ground and new buds on plants that can be eaten. Their boots leave tracks in the mud. Each tries what she can to prevent it: Chana wears a pair of socks over her boots; Róża alters her stride in an effort to obscure the pattern and even walks on all fours at times. Since the soles of Miri’s boots have detached completely, she ties them on backward so that her tracks point in the opposite direction.’
So, where is the music? The music is in everything. Róza comes from a family of musicians, her father was a violin maker, she a cellist, her husband a violinist. Her daughter, at five, is a prodigy, something Róza only begins to get an inkling of before they are separated. Shira, for all the trauma she has had to endure in such a short space of time, locks much of herself away, but music is the one thing that she can’t block out. She has the fortune of being hidden in a convent, and this is where we see another group of heroes, vulnerable women protecting children from Nazis, all over Europe. It’s not all roses there, of course not, but if you keep the situation within context, the fear these nuns must have constantly felt, the responsibility for the safety of the children they bore. That manifested itself in many ways: cruelty in some, protectiveness in others, kindness in most. It is within this convent that Shira’s musical talent is unleashed.
‘A loud burst of real singing interrupts Zosia’s reverie. She twists around to see a group of nuns standing in two lines at the back of the church. Zosia doesn’t know the language of the song, but her heart delights at the joyous interweaving of voices, some deep and resonant, others high and bell-like. She stops crying and sits up. The sound is miraculous, like the broke-open sky— the sky they sat under, she and her mother, in the hills and the pastures, before all the walking stopped. Before the rafters and roofs trapped them in. Before her mother sent her away.’
You may have noticed from the quotes that Shira is not mentioned, but rather, they are about someone named Zosia. Zosia is Shira. And so is Tzofia. From the moment Shira leaves her mother, she becomes one of the displaced children of Israel. Her identity changed too many times for her to be traced. The loss for both her and her mother is profoundly affecting to read about and contemplate, for of course, this story takes its bones from history itself. From about halfway through until the end, I listened to classical music while reading, an album of string orchestra pieces. The experience of reading this story about a child surviving exile through music while listening to what I deemed as similar music was so incredibly moving, I can’t even describe to you how it made me feel.
‘Zosia loves the dramatic start! As she plays, she imagines costumed dancers circling one another, arms hooked, their eyes sparking with each playful pluck of strings. Zosia pulls her bow its full length, back and forth. When the music slows, briefly languid, she imagines the embrace; then speeding up, the flight of feet, raised arms , and twirling skirts; and on an extended note, long and trilling, her bird flitting above the dance, excited and happy.’
‘Tuning her violin hastily, she quarter turns, hardly noticeable, to avoid directly facing the soldiers and the children seated behind them. She puts bow to string to start— her arm steady despite how nervous she feels inside— and plays, the guiding rhythm a Romani march, soft and introspective. In her mind, her bird, solitary, restless, seeks out a resting place in the icy branches of a tree. His warbling notes reverberate in the night sky like a call and response: Are you there? Yes, I am here. Where? Right here. Settle yourself. Settle. A long, rising note, barely audible, ends the middle sections— a gloomy place to stop. Zosia takes a chance and continues, playing the final movement: upbeat and rousing, a showpiece. As she keeps watch on the intricate fingering and bowing, she really performs now, angling outward to the audience, aware of the sound echoing in the room, escalating , frenzied, and exciting. The last measures push Zosia, and she rises to their challenge with the quickest of strokes and wild plucking. She feels expansive as never before, legs rooted, bow-arm flying, her fingers dancing between the strings. She closes her eyes. The music soars beyond her own sensibilities, into the listening crowd. She finishes with a strong, dramatic bow stroke.’
‘Maybe Tzofia would never be one for words. But horsehair on string, bow-arm at just the right angle , with her violin, all that Tzofia holds inside floats out of her in long, even strokes. Rather than the mass of her own body, rather than words, choked and dry, it is the heft of the violin upon her shoulder, the smooth rest for her chin, the steady pressure demanded of her hand on the bow, that roots Tzofia in the world.’
This novel has one of the most incredible endings. Hard fought for, a long time coming, and a testimony to the power of music: the way it can reach out across time and experiences and connect two people who had given each other up as forever lost. The Yellow Bird Sings is one of those novels where you mourn at the end because you can’t ever experience it for the first time again.
Thanks is extended to Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a copy via NetGalley of The Yellow Bird Sings for review.
About the Author:
The Yellow Bird Sings is Jennifer Rosner’s debut novel. She is the author of the memoir If A Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard, and the children’s book, The Mitten String. Her writing has appeared in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines. Jennifer lives in western Massachusetts with her family.
The Yellow Bird Sings
Published by Picador
Released 25th February 2020