This week, I’m reviewing the new novel from Oliver K. Langmead, Birds of Paradise, which sees the biblical Adam searching for lost pieces of Eden. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Titan Books.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.
Long ago cast out of the Garden of Eden, Adam wanders the Earth, having lived hundreds of lifetimes amongst his innumerable children. Occasionally, he is accompanied on his long journey through existence by the creatures of Eden, who are able to take human form, their presence comforting but tinged with the sadness of what they have all lost. When Adam is tasked by Rook to track down his brother, Magpie, he discovers a piece of Eden, and with it a possible path to recovering some of what he has lost.
Before he can find any peace, however, Adam’s quest will take him from the United States and up the length of the UK, and it’s clear early on that this will be a journey to remember. Langmead’s prose is clear and direct almost to the point of starkness, not a word wasted as he steers the reader between moments that stun with their poignancy, vibrancy and beauty – often all at once. Everything is granted a kind of mythic resonance through his economy of prose, whether it be people, events or settings. One early scene, for example, in which Adam is transported in a prison truck and briefly regaled by his guard with the man’s life story, is particularly affecting, Adam feeling his own self almost subsumed by the guard’s and believing momentarily that he has become him. It’s an early demonstration of Adam’s complex relationship with humanity too, as he “feels for them” in both the sense that he appreciates their struggles and also, it seems, feels on their behalf. Adam is many things to humanity; father or primogenitor of course, but also so much more.
There’s a very doomed, tragic feeling that seems to cling to Adam, his inability to die whilst those around him wither and fall undoubtedly a curse rather than a blessing. He is tormented by grief and loss, usually until the actions of his children stir him from his dispassionate numbness and inspire him to acts of bloody fury and vengeance. He is larger than life in every sense, superhuman strength and resilience casting him as some kind of unforgiving force of nature. His moments of violence are bleak acts of blind rage that are shocking without being gratuitous, meted out as utterly uncomplicated and highly concentrated biblical-style wrath against those who wrong him or his friends. Make no mistake, Adam is not in the business of handing out moral lessons or wisdom to humanity, but that’s not to say there aren’t moments of hope and joy for him to experience as he goes about his quest.
Serving as a counterpoint to Adam’s more morose attitude is an eclectic collection of shapeshifters; the original menagerie of the Garden of Eden, which Adam was given authority to name, they add much charm to the story. Whether it’s the stalwart figures of Pig and Crab, or the eager and affectionate Butterfly, the supporting cast are varied and loveable, the virtues we whimsically impart to their animal incarnations resulting in personifications that feel distinct from one another but never sink into caricature. The birds of paradise themselves – Crow, Rook, Magpie and Owl – each have their own personalities when they are in their human form too, personalities which are likewise wrapped up in their true, animal forms. Magpie, for instance, is a little bit of a rascal, obsessively collecting expensive items more for the love of acquisition than anything. They frequently have their own stories too, perhaps about incidents in their past, which are delivered as fleeting, fable-like glimpses into lives well lived.
It’s difficult to overstate just how good Birds of Paradise is. There is a poetry to not just the prose but the plot itself, the events which unfold memorably potent and incredibly moving. It is immensely readable yet packed with subtlety and sharply defined imagery, a mesmerising work of sorrowful beauty and uplifting joy. Adam’s words are imbued with power; so too are those of Oliver K. Langmead. A stunning achievement.
Birds of Paradise is published by Titan Books. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link.