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Emily Perkins launching Bird Life by Anna Smaill. (Photo: Unity Books / Design: Archi Banal)
Emily Perkins launching Bird Life by Anna Smaill. (Photo: Unity Books / Design: Archi Banal)

BooksNovember 30, 2023

What Emily Perkins said at the launch of Bird Life by Anna Smaill

Emily Perkins launching Bird Life by Anna Smaill. (Photo: Unity Books / Design: Archi Banal)
Emily Perkins launching Bird Life by Anna Smaill. (Photo: Unity Books / Design: Archi Banal)

We invite you to read – ideally aloud – writer Emily Perkins’ speech delivered at the launch of a remarkable new novel earlier this month, republished in full below.

The book launch speech is a particular and honoured art. Those who’ve attended a book launch, or many, will know how heightened and emotional they can be. A launch is essentially a birthing party: a celebration of the moment a book slips away from its creator and into the hands of booksellers and readers and their opinions, passions or indifferences. For the author of the book being launched, the night can be heady cauldron of mixed emotions.

Te Herenga Waka University Press’s publishing manager, Craig Gamble, has been to hundreds of the things and has observed that: “the author reacts … in innumerable ways – they can choke up, they can mumble, they can praise everyone who has helped effusively, they can go off on a tangent that seems to lead nowhere but is still, somehow, deeply meaningful and moving. They can simply stand at the mic and sob quietly. They can have the whole room cheering them on, laughing and crying with them … The author is exposed in that moment, offering up what they’ve made to friends and relations and the rest of the huge sometimes uncaring world, and it’s wonderful and terrifying all at the same time.”

In light of that, the purpose of a launch speech (often the first speech of the night) is two-fold: they’re there to support the author by offering a solidity to the party, a pou in the ground that the author can lean on, and feel for, when nerves and reality set in. And they’re also there to to bear witness to the labours of the book’s creator and to illuminate the merits of their work, so the writer doesn’t have to do it themselves.

Silently reading a launch speech is a bit of an irony: they’re written for the moment, for the live delivery. So for the fun of recreating the vibe and intended effect, we invite you to read the following aloud: soak in the power of the words in your mouth (alongside a glass of cheap wine and supermarket brie on a water cracker) and prepare to compel yourself and anyone who hears you to immediately get a copy of this remarkable book.

Emily Perkins’ launch speech for Bird Life by Anna Smaill

Anna’s first novel, The Chimes was described as “the most distinctive debut of the decade”, and won a place on the Booker longlist as well as in many readers’ hearts. So it’s thrilling to be here to celebrate her anticipated new novel, the astonishing Bird Life.

These early responses from readers and reviewers will give you some idea of its power: 

“Hypnotic, sad, strange and beautiful – a fantastic novel,” writes Aotearoa critic Philip Matthews.

“Unusual, empathetic, and compulsively readable,” writes leading American critic and writer Dan Kois.

The coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly calls it “powerful”, saying “Smaill excels equally at emotional drama, magical realism, and horror. Readers will find much to love.”

Matt Osman, author (but, more importantly, the bassist for Suede) says Bird Life is “A beautifully lyrical tale of loss, grief, and madness, whose central characters are so deftly drawn that you find yourself breathlessly following them down.”

My experience of reading this book was of falling into an altered state, where the seemingly calm, subtly ecstatic descriptions of its characters’ lives took hold on a very deep level. With precision and subtlety and humour it transmits the joy of physical being, feeling, looking and tasting – and wearing clothes – it’s a book that refreshes your vision.

The story is about two women, the younger Dinah who has arrived in Tokyo from New Zealand on a shockwave of grief, following the death of her twin brother Michael; and the older Yasuko, whose temporarily “normal” routine is swiftly punctured by a strange and powerful force – as, we discover, it has been before. She believes she has a gift – but it might come at a terrible cost, as her relationship with her beloved son comes under pressure from both the past and present.

The women work for the same language school, and their paths cross in a moment of crisis. Dinah, who in her early 20s is still forming herself, is soon riveted by Yasuko, and so are we – she’s one of the most memorable characters I’ve read in a while, and it’s a delight to be privy to her playful, judging, attentive inner world, to feel her availability to charm, and to see the self-possession that’s the sunny side of her isolation.

She’s a woman with many layers and much to reveal, and as Dinah connects with her we wait on tenterhooks to find out if she will be a saviour or destroyer. How we rescue one another – or don’t – or can’t – is one of the key explorations of this book.

Anna Smaill launching her novel Bird Life. (Photo: Unity Books)

Anna – who you may know is a trained classical musician as well as a poet and novelist – has spoken in interviews for Bird Life about the inspiration she took from the Mozart opera The Magic Flute. I’m no opera buff, but the core themes of losing and finding loved ones, of the pervasive, destabilising tilt of grief, like some ongoing sonic boom, and its weird parallel to that other destabilising intensity of falling in love – put me in mind of the most magical and candle-lit aspects of Shakespeare – the separated siblings in Twelfth Night, or the return from death of The Winter’s Tale, or – of course, in Yasuko’s wonderful and terrifying powers, and Dinah’s shipwreck of grief – of Prospero, and The Tempest. 

As with these plays, and the ancient stories they draw from, Bird Life takes time to reveal the fullness of how its characters will affect one another’s lives, and whether or not they will be restored, ruined, or changed – and if so, how.

It looks at guilt and forgiveness, loss and reconnection, and the way grief empties the world but makes us aware of new languages and codes, if only we can understand them.

These are the deep psychological forces Anna conjures and handles so deftly in this book, while bringing its surfaces to shimmering life. Prose this narcotically mesmerising – written with her poet’s eye and ear – just doesn’t come along very often. 

As a writer, Anna is a magician with a wild imagination and exquisite control – you will fall under the spell that Bird Life casts.

Bird Life by Anna Smaill ($38, Te Herenga Waka University Press) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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