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Author Sophie Cunningham suffered a fairly ugly break-up last month from literary journal Meanjin. Which might be good news for readers — she’ll return to writing full time, with her next book due for release in 2012. And her novels are wonderful, particularly her latest, Bird, published in 2008.

Recently I cancelled all my plans for the evening — difficult at the party-end of the year — and sat on the couch, in my empty house, scoffing a bag of corn chips and inhaling Bird. It was heaven. It wasn’t just the silence — Cunningham writes in that way you pray all novelists will: a manner in which you can get lost in their created worlds for hours.

Basic gist of the story is this: Ana-Sofia, known as Az, is an editor at a New York publishing house. Haunting her life is the untold story of her dead mother, Anna. Anna is the crazed heroine of the story, a refugee dealing with her own dead mother and sad-but-abusive father. She’s an actress who found vague fame in Hollywood before abandoning her young daughter Az — who then gets raised by her mother’s best friend — to run off and found a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayans mountains of India, where she dies a young death.

While it all sounds far-fetched, the characters of Anna and her Indian gurus are surprisingly inspired from the real-life Russian actress Zina Rachevsky. The novel doesn’t read as unbelievable as it sounds, though I did find the India based chapters to be my least favourite.

Each chapter jumps between characters and time, from the little-girl-lost Az to the not-as-crazy adopted mother Marilyn and the wise Buddhist guru Lama Gyatsho, each distinct voice reminiscing over their relationship with the eccentric Anna.

My very favourite chapter was written by Anna herself, a look back at her own childhood in Russia during the  World War II as she watched her mother starve herself to death. It’s a cold, stark tale of a child in a war zone and it is absolutely compelling.

Yes, some of the historical moments in history are a little obvious: post 9/11 New York, San Francisco in the summer of love, Leningrad during the infamous blockade. But that doesn’t make them any less fascinating. And Cunningham brings them alive, balancing wistful — almost romantic — looks at history with a good dash of thoughtful insight into family dynamics.

The details: You can read the first chapter here. Available at all good bookshops.

Peter Fray

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