What an intricately beautiful and nuanced novel this is! I had expected a story along the same lines as Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine or Meredith Alone at first. The beautiful aesthetics of the setting and glamorous lifestyle dazzle us and everything on the surface seems benign as Sunday and her daughter Dolly start a relationship with their new neighbours. Vita is aristocratic in her manner and comes across as a likeable eccentric, perhaps a little pretentious but as my friend Nigel used to say, ‘a little bit of pretension doesn’t hurt anyone’. They love- bomb Sunday and her daughter with gifts and elaborate Friday night dinners. Vita and her husband Rollo are staying in the house next door while ‘Rols’ completes a plan to buy and convert a large institution for children in care nearby. Until this glamorous pair enter their lives, Sunday and Dolly lead a very quiet life. Divorced from Dolly’s father, they still live in a house on his family estate where Sunday works in the gardens. Sunday isn’t great with noise (especially several at once) only eats white food and struggles to read between the lines with others. She gets on best with David who works in the greenhouses with her and uses sign language to communicate. Extremes of anything, cause panic in Sunday, so the slow rhythms of nature and it’s subtle colouring are perfect for her. Sunday didn’t even know anything was missing in her life until Vita wants to become her friend. However, is Vita a genuine friend or does she have an ulterior motive? This is where the slightness of the story and the details of glamorous clothes, extravagant dinners and endless champagne started to remind me of Virginia Woolf and her clever way of hiding so much beneath a beautiful surface. Instead of being an uplifting tale about someone who struggles to make connections finding a friend and embracing their peculiarities, this promised to be something darker.
I felt a kinship with Sunday immediately and the tone is light at first as she meets new neighbour Vita and her comical little dog Beast. Vita is one of those people who never question themselves or worry about their interactions with others. She simply inserts herself into Sunday’s life, without any of the social angst over whether she’s wanted there. Vita and her husband Rollo are dazzling and disarming, from the clothes they wear to the hyperbole in their speech and the very best delicacies on the dinner table, including the most exquisitely wrapped and coloured petit fours. They are disarming in the way they present themselves, classy but bohemian and often a touch of carelessness like sitting on the front step in a silk kimono and old work boots. Is this nonchalance studied or natural? Conversely, Sunday can’t be what she isn’t and her ‘quirks’ are not affectations. She has learned to be less, to mask and try to make herself acceptable from a young age thanks to a mother who never showed her love. She constantly proclaimed Sunday was an ‘it’, a ‘what’, an unsavoury puzzle to be solved. We learn that this animosity towards her daughter worsened when a terrible family tragedy occurred. I loved how the author layered the voices in Sunday’s head: her daughter explaining that her dad and stepmum love each other so much, it’s just that Sunday is incapable of seeing it; her mother saying ‘you’re not wired right you’; her sister saying ‘I don’t know what you are Sunday’. At first, the friendship of Vita and Rollo soothes Sunday’s soul, because she feels accepted. They always make sure white rolls are available at the dinner table, in case the main course is too colourful or complex for her. They also make sure there is champagne or soda water, because Sunday will only drink cold, fizzy liquids. These attentions are simply there, neither one of the couple mention them, but they mean the world to Sunday:
‘their attention to my preferences touched me. I had not been known in this way before and found acceptable. There I was seen and approved of, even indulged’.
At first, Dolly and Sunday would often stay late next door after dinner, but subtle changes start to occur. Dolly wants to stay over with Vita on Friday nights. One night, after leaving for home, Sunday returns with her daughter’s favourite pyjamas and hears music as well as laughter next door. Yet when Rollo answers the door, he holds it closed behind him as he takes the pyjamas. He is perfectly polite, but does not step back as he once might have done to let Sunday inside. These subtleties make the reader nervous and I felt worse because I wasn’t sure whether Sunday could see what I was seeing.
‘painted subjects are easier to read than their physical counterparts […] in real life the details I am drawn to are often secondary, and these often mislead. That evening when I looked at Vita, I saw her pretty hair, her little wrists wrapped in gold chains, and her welcoming smile. I did not notice the grip of her hand on my daughter’s arm’.
I wanted to put myself between Sunday and these charming people. She recalls jealousy, but was it because she envied Dolly’s easy relationship with Vita or was she jealous of Vita’s relationship with her daughter? The subtle foreshadowing becomes more direct as Dolly relates the story of Vita simply taking a friend’s baby for a walk without telling the mother. Vita seemingly could not understand why the woman was so scared or why the police were called. Slowly, Sunday understands that her new friend is possibly not what she seems, by using a system of observation and noting patterns of behaviour. Yet I was still worried that she might underestimate the extent of Vita’s ability to create chaos. Sunday describes her way of analysing people, to look beyond their ‘fleeting expressions’ to see the repeated pattern on their heart. She looks beyond what they say and instead values and interprets them based on their repeated behaviour. Yet with Vita she declares herself too scared to look, because she isn’t sure whether the tick tock of her heart signifies a clock or a bomb.
Dolly’s changes are also subtle at first, but Sunday notices a new confidence and self-possession that she is acquiring from time spent with their neighbours. Whereas once Dolly might have been reserved with new people, Vita unlocks the young girl who is soon easily pushed to near hysteria over a shared joke. This quantity of feeling makes Sunday uneasy. Yet surely this new ease in her daughter’s manner can only make life easier for Dolly? She won’t share Sunday’s fears and awkwardness. The coming summer heralds a rollercoaster of change and emotions, first Dolly’s accent becomes more cut glass and she starts to dress differently, more like Vita. As exams loom and the renovation of the children’s home comes closer, the couple offer Dolly a job helping out with admin and interior design. She announces she’d like to do it for the holidays, but Sunday reminds her she does not need to work. Her father and grandparents get her everything her heart desires. Yet Sunday feels churlish refusing the opportunity, torn between what is best for her daughter’s future. I felt that Dolly used her mum’s inexperience against her at times, claiming that there were simply so many uses for her on site, but Sunday could never imagine them, because she’s only ever known the farm. If she refuses Dolly’s request to spend time in London with them, will it make Vita and Rollo’s offer even more attractive?
Vita isn’t above manipulation herself : ‘I’m so sorry Dolly, you know we love taking you out. And we had such fun planned in London. But…’
Sunday doesn’t know whether she can or should deny her daughter these experiences. It might help her get on in life. Should she be supporting her daughter to reach for something different? Should she be holding her back? However, some base instinct urges her to say no, to ban the trip and keep Dolly home for the summer, knowing this could backfire completely if their offer is benign, nothing more than a favour for the daughter of their friend. Sunday hasn’t had close friends before so can’t compare the situation. When Dolly receives her exam results, the dam breaks and out comes a voice Sunday has never heard before from her daughter, one filled with scorn, shame and no appreciation for her mother’s years of caring attention. Dolly sees her mother’s life as a failure and she will do anything not to be like her. The author cleverly contrasts this awful evening with the story of a fox that arrived in Sunday’s garden, a little too thin and straggly. It made it’s home under their shed for the winter and every day without fail Sunday would set milk and dog food down. In the spring the fox was sleek and flourishing because of Sunday’s steady and dutiful nature.
One of the most heartbreaking revelations for me is Sunday’s slow realisation that others have quirks and oddities, but it is still possible for people to be fond of them. To love them even. She had always thought it simply a fact of life that anyone with quirks like hers would be impossible to love, but that’s not the truth:
‘My mother could still have loved me had she chosen to’.
To befriend someone who has experienced this trauma, to make them feel loved and accepted, but then manipulate them for your own ends is evil. Yet the author keeps the reader unsure whether that’s what Vita is doing an I was constantly waiting for this ticking time bomb of a woman to explode. Yet whatever the outcome, I wasn’t sure that Vita was consciously acting this way. Her behaviour felt like a repeated pattern, possibly an enactment of her own traumas. Rollo knows though and when the truth starts to emerge he is openly affectionate to Sunday. Instead of serving up the usual air kisses, this is a hug that’s more substantial and perhaps honest. Showing a remarkable insight into his wife’s nature he tells Sunday:
‘It’s not you, darling. It’s Vee I’m afraid. She doesn’t think these things through. It might all change again by tomorrow’.
Yet he is willing to let her continue, to collude in destroying others casually and without consequence. At the very least she will offer friendship and take it away on a whim. They will simply slip into another life, with all the security their money and status gives them. Like Nick and Daisy in The Great Gatsby, Vita and Rollo are careless with other people, content to use others and leave them behind. Yet there are threads of hope in the conclusion, not least in Sunday’s ability to reflect on her own actions and feelings with more awareness. This novel is stunning, beautifully written and has such psychological complexity and insight. I loved it.
Meet the Author
Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Kent. Like her protagonist, Sunday, in ALL THE LITTLE BIRD-HEARTS, Viktoria is autistic. She has presented her doctoral research internationally, most recently speaking at Harvard University on autism and literary narrative. Viktoria lives with her husband and children on the Kent coast.
2 thoughts on “All The Little Bird Hearts by Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow”
I’ve just bought this book, Hayley, as your review blew me away! Have a beautiful day, albeit windy x
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Thanks so much Hemmie, what a lovely thing to say. Im glad you managed to get it on offer too x
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