Birds of Paradise introduces readers to Adam, the first human ever created, made long ago in the Garden of Eden. Having been alive for so long Adam is not the figure as depicted in the Bible, and seems to be coasting through life, living through one identity after another with no real aim or focus. This all changes, however, when Adam seems to snap one day and beats a film writer to death. Facing prison, Adam is approached by Raven, the first raven to ever exist; who like Adam was thrown out of Eden and now faces an immortal existence, able to change from animal to human at will.
Raven is able to arrange for Adam to avoid prison, but in return Adam will have to travel across the Atlantic to Scotland to help track down Raven’s elusive brother, Magpie, who’s been spending millions of his brothers money. Adam has to find Magpie and discover what he’s been doing with Raven’s money. Along the way Adam will meet up with some of the other former inhabitants of Eden, and discover a secret that will change things for them all forever.
The blurb on the back of Birds of Paradise compares the book to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and whilst I’ve yet to read it (I know, I really should) from what I know of the book it’s a really good comparison. The story feels strangely timeless, full of history and age, yet so steeped in the modern world. It feels like myth meeting everyday life, where the fantastical and wondrous can be hiding behind any corner, where any person could be something ancient and powerful.
Whilst there have been a lot of Adam and Eve re-tellings or re-imaginings over the years this is one really stands out because it gives life to the entirety of Eden, not just the human inhabitants. The story is as much about the animals, the beings that have existed through all of time and become part of the human world. It’s them who really drive the story forward, who make things happen; Adam feels less of a protagonist, and more of a reactor, simply going along and seeing what happens.
But this isn’t a bad thing, and certainly not a weakness for the book. Readers very quickly learn that Adam has lived so long, seen so much, loved and lost time and time again that he’s almost given up. Nothing much really surprises him any more. He hardly feels passion, he struggles to make connections with the humans that populate the world, and sees little reason to. The book is as much about Adam learning to recapture some of his old life, the things that gave him purpose and joy before, as much as it is about unravelling the mystery of what Magpie is up to.
Birds of Paradise doesn’t take a kind view of immortality. It presents the idea of living forever as as much a curse as anything else. The inhabitants of Eden don’t age, they don’t get sick, but they can be killed. If someone hurts them enough, uses such brutal force, they can be killed. The only way for them to find an end to their long existence is to go through a brutal death. So we have characters who are seeking out little joys in life, things that can give them happiness, but it doesn’t always seem to work. There are characters who are barely holding on to their humanity, existing as almost feral creatures, because they just don’t know what else to do with themselves.
Because of this the book has a kind of melencholy feel to it at times, it has such beauty and wonder, yet can leave you feeling like you’ve witnessed something awful and heartbreaking too. The characters in this book might be immortal, might be god-like to us, but they can hurt and suffer as much as anyone; and that, like them, can last forever.
Birds of Paradise is a book that I was very interested in, but wasn’t expecting to grab me as much as this one did. It had so much depth to it, so much heart. Oliver K. Langmead talks about how the book took over a decade to write, and I can believe that, I can believe that a story this complex, layered, and beautiful took so long to create, and was such a passion project that he refused to give up on it for so long. A truly amazing piece of writing.
Birds of Paradise is out now from Titan Books.