BirdbrainBirdbrain by Johanna Sinisalo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

two young backpackers and an unspecified and deeply creepy “I” head out for a long backpacking trip across NZ, Australia, and Tasmania. “I” is perhaps an uninvited guest. or possibly not present at all. or perhaps both present and ubiquitous.

the synopsis of this book (the back cover/flap copy) is horrible, but i’m not sure how one could have written it better. this is not a traditional Man-vs-Nature story such as “To Build a Fire,” and yet it is perhaps (two small, environmentally-conscious) backpackers vs. Nature? or ultimately Us vs. Ourselves?

one of the things i like very, very best about Sinisalo’s books is that you absolutely cannot predict them. they will defy your expectations, and be like nothing you’ve read before. and yet despite their lack of a standard plot, they hang together perfectly, like a quilt that somehow manages to happily wed acid green and scarlet. it’s hard to imagine, but in skilled hands, it can be done.

this book lacks many of the things that normally propel a plot: a conflict, a mystery, a desire as yet unfulfilled. there are conflicts, mysteries, and desires in this book, but none presents itself as the spine that holds the creature upright. instead these small, often petty disturbances weave themselves together, becoming more and more unsettling as the pair traverses distance and meanders further from “civilization.”

and civilization in the rear-view makes up one of the more intriguing shades of this book. those who love the wilds–who are not city creatures, entirely–are very ambivalent about the dichotomous civ/wild pair. one can loathe traffic and the monad-creating effects of technology, and still love pepperoni on a trail.

and where to land along this continuum? does a human presence necessarily imply waste and destruction and large, cancerous cities? is it even possible to live truly green? Sinisalo’s book suggests the possibility that we may not be given leave to answer these questions ourselves–another might be in the process of taking them from us, one slab of pepperoni at a time.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is heavily quoted in this book–i haven’t read it for years, but i am betting a close acquaintance with that book would reward the reader of Sinisalo’s creepy little offering greatly.