Book review: Telltale, Carmel Bird

The onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic in the first months of 2020 – and the lockdowns that followed – caused different reactions from people. Some saw past periods confined indoors as a depressing ode to wasted time; others enthusiastically experimented with hobbies or binge-watched Netflix.

Carmel Bird – like many writers – spent confinement reading. In “the strange beauty of the stillness of loneliness suddenly brought about by the pandemic,” Bird embarked on a journey to re-read the texts that shaped her as a person, a reader and a writer. Witness is the result. Part reading journal, part intertextual memoirs, Bird takes us on a narrative journey through his bibliophile life.

When re-reading texts, Bird pauses to “reflect on the differences brought about by the first and subsequent readings of a text.” By exploring the thoughts, words and works of EM Forster and AA Milne to the Brothers Grimm and Jorge Luis Borges, Bird creates the ultimate intertext – one that has both warp and weft. This intersectionality between time and space is inhabited by Bird, who attempts to articulate how “the reader’s perspectives change throughout life” and how “the meaning and experience of texts reveal themselves, offer new gifts.

Witness, writes Bird, is woven from two different types of narrative structure. “A thread talks about books read and sometimes books written. And also things that happened in my life. The other speaks of a journey of the heart, of a pilgrimage through an uneven history of the world, becoming a poetic thread that runs through the whole story.

This poetic thread underlies the composition of each chapter of Witness. Each section ends with a micro-poem – or sometimes simply with a shortening of the text. This hybridity of form has potential, but it seems constrained by the page itself: by reserving each chapter but without space to open up to a broader exploration of the experimental.

On time, Witness feels cut off from a solid or recognizable structure; the chapters meander, sometimes seeming to fray from the narrative thread. However, this feeling of dislocation could perhaps be attributed to the dyschrony of confinement, the unsettling turmoil of time spent indoors, and how COVID itself can cloud the senses.

Additionally, Bird breaks the literary fourth wall through its repeated references to the writing of the text itself; while this might have further enhanced the sense of intertextual resonance between author and readers, it instead sank as a discordant note in an otherwise fluid narrative.

Read: Book Review: Open Secrets, edited by Catriona Menzies-Pike

Witness inhabits and voices a version of so-called Australia that may not be widely recognizable to many younger or diverse readers. Bird’s memories are specific to both his identity and his situation in a specific era of Australian history. She is white, and most of the books she revisits are by white authors.

Witness reflects Bird’s earliest memories of post-war Australia; while Bird is self-reflective about her positioning, the vision and story she articulates can still sometimes feel stuffy and seamless. Yet in this specificity of Bird’s own range of experiences, Witness reflects how a life spent reading is deeply individual.

Witness: read, write, memorize
By Carmel Bird
Publisher: Transit Lounge Publishing
ISBN: 9781925760927
Pages: 288 hb
Release date: July 1, 2022
MSRP: $32.99