Author: Crystal Chan
Published: January 2014
Summary: Jewel was born on the same day that her brother Bird tragically died. The circumstances of his death are rarely discussed in her family, in fact, very little is discussed at all in her family. Her grandpa has not spoken in 12 years, since the day Bird died, and her parents have been living a half life. When Jewel meets a young boy one day at her favorite tree, she begins to want more from her family and get to the bottom of the secrets that are holding them back.
Thoughts: This book was one of my picks for my family’s book club this year, but other than the strong Goodreads rating and the mysterious synopsis, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. The first thing that struck me about this novel was the writing. Crystal Chan’s prose is gorgeous. At times it felt like the book was more of a poem than a novel. In college I studied Spanish and the curriculum at my school was mainly rooted in Latin America. As a result, I read a lot of Latin American literature, particularly Mexican. This story reminded me a lot of Mexican literature, which was interesting given Jewel’s partially Mexican roots. Mexican literature introduced me to Magical Realism, a popular technique among the Latin American books I have read, but not my favorite story-telling mechanism. Bird has a strong element of Magical Realism. The Grandpa and Dad in the story are fearful of “Guppies,” which are spirits they believe that take on many shapes to influence human nature. They are constantly doing the various things they believe will ward off these spirits and protect their family from further damage by them. Jewel is not sure what to make of them, which is sort of what you are feeling as a reader, but she can’t help but see the world through a lens where Guppies exist because that is the lens she was raised with. I just didn’t particularly like this plot point, but it permeated every aspect of the book.
In my master’s degree, I took a class on family counseling and can remember my professor talking about how grief can impact a family for generations if handled in a maladaptive way. At the time I didn’t have any applications for this concept, but it always struck a chord with me and intrigued me. I think this family’s story is exactly what my professor was talking about. The death of her brother, whom she never met, was a visible presence in her every day life. The whole family’s structure was based around the grief of Bird’s death. Seeing how it impacts Jewel makes it easy for me to see how Bird’s death could then go on to be a presence in Jewel’s children’s lives. Grief is powerful and this book shows that in all its ugly glory.
Even though this book was good in terms of literary contributions, I just didn’t really enjoy reading it very much. This is why I gave it only 3 stars, but my write up doesn’t necessarily jive with that 3 star rating. I would recommend this book for anyone who appreciates beautiful writing, doesn’t mind magical realism, and enjoys a middle grades perspective (albeit a very precocious 12-year-old). It was a beautiful book, just not my taste.