Dawn McGuigan book review

Review: The Yellow Bird Sings by Jennifer Rosner

Jennifer Rosner’s debut novel is a heartbreaking story about the lengths a mother will go to to keep her daughter safe in World War Two. It’s beautiful. 

Since the coronavirus turned our lives upside down in March, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to concentrate on reading. I’ve started several books but abandoned them after just a few chapters as my brain couldn’t focus on the narrative while viruses, lockdowns and social distancing rose around me.

If you’re struggling with the same issues, this great article from Penguin might help you to clear the reading fog.

So, after a few weeks in a reading slump I became concerned when the publication date of The Yellow Bird Sings got closer and I hadn’t started to read it. I needn’t have worried. This fantastic book got me right out of my lull with its stunning prose and heart-wrenching story. And, that’s just one of the reasons I loved it.

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

Poland, 1941. A mother. A child. An impossible choice.

Poland, 1941. After the Jews in their town are rounded up, Róza and her five-year-old daughter, Shira, spend day and night hidden in a farmer’s barn. Forbidden from making a sound, only the yellow bird from her mother’s stories can sing the melodies Shira composes in her head.

Róza does all she can to take care of Shira and shield her from the horrors of the outside world. They play silent games and invent their own sign language. But then the day comes when their haven is no longer safe, and Róza must face an impossible choice: whether the best thing she can do for her daughter is keep her close by her side, or give her the chance to survive by letting her go…

What did I think?

It sounds strange to say that I really enjoyed a book about such a harrowing subject but I did.

The Yellow Bird Sings is beautifully written and Rosner never trivialises or glamourises the harsh realities that her protagonists face. The narrative is split between Róza and Shira, so the reader sees the perspective of the mother desperately trying to keep her daughter safe and the five-year-old child struggling to understand the complexities of her circumstances.

The relationship between Róza and Shira is obviously the heart of the book. But, its portrayal never strays into saccharine melodrama – the necessity for love to be harsh in these times and for Róza to make hugely difficult decisions for her daughter are never ignored. Rosner’s writing really excelled in these scenes.

The choices and sacrifices women had to make in these times are treated with equal candour. Róza gives up her body to men who are able to hide and/or protect her and her daughter, and there is a particularly visceral scene where she must deal with the physical consequences of that alone.

It’s difficult to discuss the book in much more detail without divulging spoilers so I’ll stop. What I will say, though, is that The Yellow Bird Sings is resoundingly uplifting and loving and is well worth a read.

The Yellow Bird Sings is published on 2 April 2020 by Picador. Thanks to Picador for my review copy.

Image credit: Pexels

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