Place of Many Birds by Jan Merry is an exquisitely-written collection of short stories that take place in a span of time from the late 1800s into the mid-20th century in Australia. The landscape of Australia becomes the primary “character” and common link among all of the short stories: the danger and struggle it imposes on its inhabitants as well as the vast beauty in which birds provide the soundtrack that become an integral part of the characters.
The core family plays a large part in many of the stories — “Before Winter Comes” is a particularly poignant tale of the delight an unexpected sponge cake brings to a sister and her two younger brothers whose mother has passed away. Loneliness is another theme found throughout: In “Killing Time,” Maurice piddles away his days, stretching out tasks, and taking long bike rides. He feels like he’s in the way of his son and daughter-in-law who live with him.
The title story, Place of Many Birds, reads almost like a stream of consciousness in which the narrator takes us through his family’s life out in the country, where he, his brother and mom stayed behind while their dad and older brother go to the city to prepare a life for the whole family there. His mother misses city life as she grew up in a quaint town in England with cobblestone paths and busy shops. He becomes intricately tied to the land. As inconvenient as the dust, heat and flies can be, it’s something that will always stay with him. “All along the dusty edges of the road, we pass wattle trees, bottle brush and flowering gums where tiny creatures dressed in gamnut hats and ragged blossom clothes live.”
Place of Many Birds is an excellent collection of short stories. I highly recommend it for someone who wants to take his or her time and delve deeply into the characters’ thoughts as well as the vast landscape of Australia.