Author’s first novel leaves reader ‘breathless’

2015-07-01 06:05

Birdseye by Maire Fisher: Publisher - Umuzi

HERE’S something quite different; something to get really excited about.

First-time novelist, Maire Fisher, has come up with a work so original – almost magical at times – that, swept along by the plot’s intricate twists and turns, you may well find yourself left almost breathless at times.

Fisher’s handling of the intricate plot – and the manner in which she guides it along is, for starters, so self-assured it’s not surprising to learn the Cape-based writer has solid roots in the business of fiction writing. She lives in Fish Hoek and is much in demand by publishers as a fiction editor. “I’m very lucky,” she says, “to belong to a group of writers which meets regularly at The Grail Writing Retreat in Kleinmond.”

It is in this area of the Cape that the drama, Birdseye, is played out in the fictional town of Harbiton, with much of the action taking place within the walls of a home built on some of the area’s highest peaks, suggesting an abode on the lines of a horror movie. It is known as Marchbanks – and the topmost apartment is the den of Mrs Marchbanks-Hall, a true witch, who rules its family inhabitants with an evil rod of iron. From here on she is known as Ma Bess, so named by the novel’s chief chronicler, young Bird, baby of the family and granddaughter of the aforesaid monster.

Beautifully handled by writer Fisher, as early as the novel’s second page she leaves you in no doubt of the impending evil of everything Ma Bess touches. Courting Ma Bess’s eldest daughter, Annie, suitor Orville is invited to tea at the old woman’s top-storey apartment and he reflects: “The dragon met them at the door”. Then thinks, no not dragon – “more an ice-queen or a wicked stepmother. Beautiful but very scary”.

The story now is almost ready to shrug off its conventional third person mode, and for Bird to take over as chief narrator, and readers already will find themselves confronted with the real meat of it – a modern fairytale in which heroine, Bird, takes on the evil witch. Who will win? If you think it’s obvious, think again. For it isn’t quite like that.

In a conventional fairytale, of course, good girl Bird would win at a canter. But how she accomplishes this in Birdseye – so aptly named, with its little heroine having, so to speak, a bird’s-eye view of all its characters, the good and bad – is the real beauty of the story. Here writer Fisher plays her trump card, using Bird’s 10-year-old siblings, twin boys Oliver and Oscar, just a few years older than the young heroine herself, as the tools of detective work through which we learn more about Ma Bess and the twins, of course.

They had set off one morning and have not returned. At first no one worries. Not even Bird. The boys are known explorers. They will soon return with wonderful tales of the mountains’ secrets. But as time goes by the little girl becomes increasingly worried. Days, weeks, months pass. Why have they been away so long? What can have happened to them in the dark, mysterious caverns of the mountains?

In Bird’s telling of it, this mystery – and the worrying factor of Ma Bess having no apparent interest in the boys’ fate – the little girl’s concern for her two heroes continues to grow. Soon her fears crystallise, becoming horrid dread that something far worse than their usual pranks is afoot.

This truly is in the class of something new from writers like Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley.

Fisher is aiming at that level and getting there fast. Buy it. You won’t regret it. Read it slowly. Devour it. It’s splendid. Something out of the ordinary

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