So, there’s something about birds in the aptly named Walking Among Birds (Magdalen College Press), one of the neatest, niftiest and most intriguing dramas I’ve read this year, from a new young voice and literary talent Matthew Hickson.
Right before the book’s pivotal sequence, Hickson writes, “The lights went out at their usual time and, to the birds flying high above the colleges, nothing would have seemed out of the ordinary. In fact, it probably seemed calmer and quieter than usual.”
Well into the story at this point, and not being a bird myself, I contemplated that description, as well as the vantage point through which these feathered creatures are full-fledged observers to any event of consequence. Yet they travel on, too engaged in their own intentions.
Speaking of intentions, Hickson uses them as a major theme in his work, pitting them, naturally, against the struggle to fulfill actual life realizations — “The mantra of ‘due tomorrow, do tomorrow’ is a dangerous one: idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” he writes. To follow that trajectory, he uses the tale of the Lapin twin brothers whose adolescent crimes, misdemeanors and school expulsions prompt their father to send them to St. Benedict’s boarding school, where trouble finds them.
Hickson uses secrets not only to set up the story, but to advance it. First, the twins, Jack and Peter, tell their new school colleagues they were thrown out of their previous schools for roping fellow students into sharing their innermost secrets and then compiling them in a hidden — at least for a time — document. At St. Benedict’s, secrets lurk in every corner — from classmates to faculty to administrators to clergy, all falling under the twins’ convincing spell to have those secrets revealed where the plot suits them.
BRILLIANT AND ENTERTAINING SIDE CHARACTERS
Besides the twins, the author introduces us to a worthy supporting cast: the popular and obnoxious Cole, his girlfriend Charmaine, her curious brother Lorenz, the bullied boy Tom, assistant headmaster Mr. Latan, Father Culpa and the literature teacher Ms. Bowen. Any of them could have been perfectly capable choices for the lead role in another place and time.
Perhaps most charming is the narrator himself, who offers an endearing blend of wit and philosophy. He wishes he could run and never grow tired, but his current running, he laments, is confined to “many laps to the fridge and back,” or running at the mention of “free donuts.”
His use of language is magnificent. In discussing the need to prove one’s intentions, he suggests, “Our flesh’s weakness should be no match for our spirit’s perseverance.”
In explaining that the twins had no memory of their mother, he writes “‘Dad’ was always the word for food or a bandaid or some rare ounce of sympathy.”
The narrator says the reason Dad chose St. Benedict’s for his boys was because “his sister-in-law’s twice-removed cousin’s brother’s second cousin’s aunt was the headmistress.”
There’s so much to like about Walking Among Birds: a captivating plot, a potpourri of shady and heroic characters, the idyllic setting of boarding school life and its surrounding nature, a narrator you wish you could have a drink with and a promising author who has a story to tell and the literary chops to tell it.
In a key letter that is shared near the end of the book, it is written: “Listen to the birds as they each sing their unique song in the morning, or simply be still and contemplate how perfect the world is in its imperfection.”
No need to explain the intricacies of all the secrets — this book is a quick read, so get started.
Learn more about Hickson on his BookTrib author profile page.