Memory is a funny thing. It can be selective and inaccurate. I'm not sure if it is a matter of self-preservation or simply the way time frays the edges of past recollections. And a child's perception of events is even hazier, so add on a layer of adolescent angst and a lack of experience and understanding. In Marianne Holmes's engaging debut novel, A Little Bird Told Me, she manages to evoke that sense of mystery and misunderstanding of family trauma as witnessed through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl who feels all but invisible to the world around her. Or almost all.
Robyn Stanton and her brother Kit have returned to the little village where they spent the early years of their youth until devastating events forced them leave. Now they have come back to try and find out the truth of that terrible summer some dozen years previously. For Robyn, she needs to set to rights her part in what happened that summer. The summer her father came back into their lives and their mother went missing. The summer she betrayed all who loved her.
Holmes has shifted things around a bit in her storytelling. Often the reader holds all the cards and watches the characters struggle for truth and resolution knowing many of the little secrets and details the characters might not be privy to. This time out, however, the reader must piece it all together as the story plays out and try and suss out not only what exactly did happen so long ago but why everyone seems so against Kit and especially Robyn as they dredge up old memories. It's like opening an old wound that never quite healed correctly, and they ruffle not a few feathers. Not only does Robyn still not quite understand what happened, like reading a book that has missing chapters, but her nine-year old self never really knew the whole story and most of the important little details. Seeing is not always understanding and that nine-year-old Robyn saw quite a lot, but it was a murky kind of knowledge. So reader and character get to experience events together. It's hazy memories and facts until the layers of story are peeled back to the core.
Bit and pieces from the past. What do they all mean? Two St. Christopher medals. A charm bracelet. Old newspapers with stories relating a domestic abuse allegation that Robyn's mum, Jemima, was involved in. A purse with a wallet inside containing a photograph of two young girls sitting side by side. And a town with residents filled with resentment and ill feelings towards the Stantons. Then there is Neil. Kit's good friend and the boy who Robyn blames for not getting help in time. So many mysteries little pieces to the puzzle.
The story moves back and forth in time between 1976 and 1988. Robyn and Kit are only children when those fearful events occurred. That summer Robyn is being bullied and no one seems to notice or care. Her only savior is the man everyone calls the cowboy, perhaps worse than any local bully but he always seems to step in just when Robyn needs him. Her mother Jemima and stepfather Matthew are already dealing with their own problems, one being the village boy whose mother comes to Jemima for help and sanctuary from an abusive husband. Worse worries come in the form of Robyn's cowboy since he claims to be her dad, a fact she finds more interesting than fearful. For Kit, however, he shakes in his shoes when he encounters the man. Curiously Robyn feels almost empowered by her run-ins with him. He gives her the attention no one else seems capable of.
More than a decade later, though, Robyn looks back on those events with a different eye. They return to find answers. For Kit it is meant to be a quick in and out search. A hopeful search that they might find out what happened to their missing mother. But for Robyn this is her moment to make some kind of amends to those she feels she let down. Not everyone is happy to see the pair, hardly grown up and still at the start of their young lives yet already jaded by what they have endured. A Little Bird Told Me is a slow burn sort of story. It takes a little time and attention to orient oneself to what's happening in the story and who is who and who knows what. But Holmes makes the revelations intriguing in a way that you keep going in order to find out answers until you get to a point of no return and can't stop until the very last revelation. This is a perfect fall read, a haunted kind of story that comes from the sort of ghosts that creep into your mind from memories half recalled and not fully formed.
This is Marianne Holmes first novel and an auspicious start. She had a varied and colorful upbringing and youth and I look forward to seeing how it plays into her next book and future writing. Thanks to Agora Books for sending this book my way. It had already been on my own wishlist, so I was thrilled to get a copy sooner rather than later. You can check out Marianne Holmes's website here.