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Book Review: Birds Art Life Death

Thanks to HarperCollins UK/4th Estate for providing me with a copy of Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life Death: A Field Guide to the Small and Significant for review.

A writer’s search for inspiration, beauty, and solace leads her to birds in this intimate and exuberant meditation on creativity and life – a field guide to things small and significant. 

In 2012, Kyo Maclear met a musician with a passion for birds. Curious about what had prompted a young urban artist to suddenly embrace nature she decided to follow him for a year to find out.

Observing two artists through seasonal shifts and migrations, Birds Art Life Death celebrates the particular madness of chasing after birds in a big city, and explores what happens when the principles of birdwatching are applied to other aspects of art and life. It looks at the ecology of urban spaces and the creative and liberating effects of keeping your eyes and ears wide open. Far from seeking the exotic, Kyo discovers joy in the birds she spots in city parks and harbours, along eaves and on wires. In a world that values big and fast, Kyo begins to look to the small, steady, slow accumulations of knowledge, and the lulls that give way to contemplation.

Moving between the granular and the grand, peering into the inner landscape as much as the outer one, Birds Art Life Death asks how we are shaped and nurtured by our passions, and how we might come to love and protect not only the world’s natural places but also the challenging urban spaces where so many of us live.


If the books I review on this website are indicative of something, it’s that I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. I’m the person who’d much rather an action packed novel about, say, an alien invasion than a long study debating alien existence full of essays and scientific evidence.

On the rare occasions where I do venture into the non-fiction territory, it’s mainly to read memoirs. The last one I read being John Pearson’s The Profession of Violence about the Kray twins which not only follows your standard biography format, but is very different from today’s featured novel about bird-watching.

Kyo Maclear’s memoir, Birds Art Life Death, is like no memoir I’ve ever read before. Broken up into seasons packed with little sketches and quotes, Birds Art Life Death is Maclear’s story about coping with death, motherhood, culture, friendship, love and immigration while following her musician pal on his bird-watching ventures.

Not only was Maclear’s writing stunning and lyrical, but I liked the honesty in her words. Throughout her journey, she tackles quite heavy and tough subject matters, but does them in a way that doesn’t feel overbearing and self-wallowing. We’ve all read autobiographies where the author comes across as super pretentious, but Maclear’s introspective musings were very intriguing. I adored the insights into her life as not just a mother and a wife, but a daughter to an ailing father. Maclear transitions through these topics so effortlessly with such natural sincerity.

Despite taking the odd bird snap for Instagram and knowing all the words to Nelly Furtado’s 2000 bop “I’m Like a Bird”, I am not an avid bird-watcher. I did find myself having to take to Google when Maclear launched into descriptions of the birds or quoted other authors with a passion for birding. I felt at times it could be excessive. It often took away from the smooth narrative, but other than that I did enjoy learning more about birding and liked how Birds Art Life Death encourages the reader to look for birds and beauty in our surroundings no matter how urban they may be.

After reading Birds Art Life Death, I would say that I’ve come to appreciate bird-watching more now than I did. Will I do it? Quite possibly. I live in a part of Wales which isn’t overwhelmingly rural nor is it totally urban, so perhaps one day I may go birding or at least take more time to value their beauty. But this book was more than just birds, I feel an immense appreciation to Maclear for allowing us as readers to follow both her and her musician friend’s journey of discovery.

Birds Art Life Death is a moving and refreshing memoir. Whether you have a keen interest in birds or not, I would recommend it. There were so many poignant moments in the book that just spoke to me and made me reflect on life. It serves as the perfect reminder for fellow busy types who get caught up in the frantic pace of everyday life to just take a moment to relax, be still and appreciate the beauty of nature and our world.


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