Europe, the beginning of the 19th Century. Hopes of an enlightened age arising from the French Revolution have been dashed by The Terror. Napoleon has forced the French domination of most of continental Europe. The lands are far from settled – the citizens not agreeing that “the French had given them equality and freedom”. The unrest means Napoleon’s army is always on the hunt for more men and boys. Amidst this backdrop of colonial unrest, emerging nationalism, and bloody conflict, three young people are growing up, searching for who they are and to whom they belong.
Rémi and Pascal have spent most of their lives in the Comédie-Italienne in Paris, orphans who looked to Gianni, master of the commedia dell’arte, as their father. Pascal is a costumier, set-maker, and lute-player. Rémi is an aspiring actor – those readers who know the author’s Into the world, will recognise Rémi from the brand on his arm, inflicted by his mother Marie-Louise before abandoning him, as proof he was her son. Marie-Louise has returned to Paris, and she seemingly kidnaps the boys and throws them “into a den of wolves”.
Saskia is a contortionist in a Russian circus. Abandoned by her mother, she looks to bare-back-rider Svetlana for comfort. Saskia is kidnapped by a priest, “Father”, and held in slavery. When the boys are released (they had been hidden from those searching for fresh troops for Napoleon’s army), they flee Paris. When Saskia gets her chance she also flees, and the three meet up and become travelling entertainers: a storyteller, a contortionist and a lutist: “You couldn’t get more freedom than the life of a travelling storyteller.”
The three performers have political and civil unrest roiling around them, they are telling French tales to increasingly nationalistic audiences, and Rémi is always pushing the boundaries with his storytelling. It is also the time of “these word thieves” – the Brothers Grimm. Stories being set down in books is a threat to storytellers, and it determines which stories and which version of those stories will persist. “We must be able to perform our stories or how will we remember who we are?” However, Saskia finds the concept of stories in books alluring, it would mean she would no longer be dependent on men to tell her tales, she could read them herself – if only she could read.
Saskia doesn’t know where she is from, and when she does discover the truth about her parents, it brings no peace. Like the boys, she has a facility for taking on personas, sometimes she is Sebastian, well aware of the dangers of being a young woman on the streets. She is tough and adapts to wherever she finds herself. Although Saskia doesn’t know who she is, whose tales are hers, she does recognise Little Red Ridinghood as “A lesson for girls not to stray” and she wonders “where were the tales for young boys, warning them not to become wolves”? Once she learns to read and write, she determines she will write her own stories.
Women’s art features a lot in the story, full of rage, betrayal, and ongoing struggle. In Venice, the wealthy and political Colombina re-stages The Taming of the shrew to highlight the subjugation of women, casting a bearded actor as Kate, making him bow down in submission at the end. She alters the end in her staging of the Italian version of Romeo and Juliet, asking if blood feuds can ever be overcome and true peace be achieved – resonating with those wondering what the splitting up of the alliances shoring up Napoleon’s empire will bring. The boys are used to being Frenchmen in French territories, but slowly they start to be viewed as colonisers – Napoleon’s fortunes are beginning to turn, “All my life I had lived in a world where Frenchmen were hated and feared, but never powerless.”
The story ranges across Europe: Paris, Marburg, Venice, Milan … In Venice each of our characters finds love, and each finds conflict in their relationships. Although Rémi is one of our heroes, he is also an egocentric child in many ways. He sits for Colombina to paint him, and feels embarrassed and belittled by what would be a common arrangement for a girl sitting for a male artist. He is shocked that Colombina would put her politics ahead of her romantic feelings, put her love of place, people and heritage ahead of her love for him. This after his seeing the gaps in the city left by Napoleon stealing artworks and irreplaceable manuscripts. Given Rémi’s abandonment it is easy to understand his self-absorption.
A theme through the book is the abandonment of children. There are mechanisms to enable women to leave their children where they will be found by churches. Young boys are routinely rounded up as fodder for war. “Some noble families married their unwanted daughters to God”. In Venice “The hospital has been taking foundling children for hundreds of years”. Sometimes the mothers left signs with their children, hoping for a later reuniting – a card ripped in half, a brand …
The characters are rounded and interesting. Rémi’s tale is written in the first person, Pascal and Saskia’s stories in the third person. Pascal is more sympathetic than Rémi, his main interest for many years being Rémi not himself. When Pacal does find someone else to love, circumstances tragically intervene. And there’s Saskia – always dreaming of the circus, until her dreams finally pack up their tents and “She saw the wagons rolling away”. Saskia who has more courage than all of them, putting herself in terrible danger to save the one she loves.
“We are cowards … we do not want to go to war”, comments Pascal. But Saskia does go to war, as do other young women for one reason or another, and they see the horrors of the battlefield first hand. Rémi, Pascal and Saskia each dream of ideal pasts: in the Russian circus, in the Comédie-Italienne. But as they grow and find out the truth of their childhoods, their dreams fade. All three eventually realise how unfair they have been in their disappointment in their mothers, their realisation that mothers have reasons for their choices, if they have a choice at all – women too want agency and freedom to move.
The Freedom of birds speaks of amazing women who the young people meet along the way, each of whom deserves a novel of her own: Katherina in Marberg who had sung for Mozart; Columbina in Venice a painter and director; Margot in Paris with her tragic history and eternal hope; Natalie in the French countryside helping a waif who washes up at her door. There is a great use of anthropomorphism in the novel too; the “skinny dogs” and “goats” who would gather to hear the stories in the town squares, the priest is a “crow” or “raven”. Colombina’s paintings are of therianthropes, half human, half animal. Saskia longs to be a vila from the tales Svetlana would tell her – a woman who can shapeshift into a falcon or owl. The reader worries about Henriette the horse.
The writing is plain and simple storytelling, much as Rémi would perform, allowing the story to entrance the reader: “Besides a story was so much more than truth.” The evils of colonialism are laid bare, despite a few good outcomes there is the plundering, the massive loss of life, and the imposition of an alien set of values: “Napoleon may have emancipated the Jews in all his territories, but overcoming prejudice was a slow business.” A subjugated people will always rebel. And the novel emphasises the importance of art and storytelling in rebellion: “If we lose our art, who are we”. It is stories that give us hope when all seems lost: “The Innamorati were always reunited in the end.”
There are some genuinely moving pieces in the book, such as the denouement of the performance of Guilietta e Romeo, starring Saskia and her lover Cristo. And there are the horrific scenes of war. There are the tensions and squabbles between the three young people, their reunitings, and their partings. Those readers who have read Josephine’s garden will recognise the setting of Versailles and the background of Malmaison. And if they are anything like me they would have gasped at the exquisite reappearance of the “orange ape”, she too deserves a novel of her own.
“The question for me has never been: Where do I belong? It has always been: Where will I go next?”, The Freedom of birds is a sweeping picaresque novel of political turmoil, the desire for freedom, the role of art, and most of all it is a tale of friendship. It is a standalone novel but is enhanced by having read Into the world and Josephine’s garden.