Fed to Red Birds opens with a scene in which the protagonist cradles the body of a dead bird. Elva is fascinated by the art of taxidermy, and this is her first attempt at the craft. She transforms the ‘tiny frame of bones and flesh’ into something less fragile. Yet her first attempt at taxidermy is far from perfect; as Elva later tells us, she is ‘not good at fixing what’s broken’.
Elva is from Melbourne; she travels to Iceland to explore her familial roots. The mystery of her vanished mother and the strange aura surrounding her grandfather mingle with the atmosphere of the novel’s Icelandic setting. Elva shuttles between her apartment, her place of work – a shop of curiosities – and her language classes. The latter is of particular importance, as Elva’s proficiency in Icelandic holds the key to her staying the country.
Afi, Elva’s grandfather, is the author a children’s book that is famous in Iceland. Elva is similarly gripped by the unsettling power of words and language. After browsing in a bookshop, she is chased by an imagined ‘army of alphabets, scuttling across the footpath in a monstrous wave […] spindly as insects, dark as blood’.
At one point in the novel, Elva begins to chew a strip of paper, and feels the ink soaking into her tongue. ‘The words,’ Elva tells us, ‘melted and melded between my teeth […] I pictured the ink cascading off my ribs, pouring into my belly in a great pool of darkness’.
The transgressive quality of Elva’s relationship with words and language is at the heart of Fed to Red Birds, and provides one of the many layers of strangeness the novel offers its readers.
When Afi suffers a stroke, Elva finds herself spiralling. Her fascination with the macabre – taxidermy, fairy tales and Victorian collectibles – begins to dig its talons into Elva’s mind. She starts to explore her obsessions but, at the same time, they threaten to overwhelm her.
Fed to Red Birds treads the line between the ordinary and the strange, and offers stylistic nods to magic realism. Collins interweaves the mundane with the otherworldly; the effect is to make the narrative both familiar and alien – which is mirrored by Elva’s relationship to Iceland itself.
The landscape of Iceland, devoid of trees, holds significant weight within Collins’ text. With its ‘flat, dark fields of ancient lava, mottled with pockets of moss-covered rock’, the setting of Fed to Red Birds is, itself, a character. Australia, too, holds a ghostly presence in the novel; the motif of the stark juxtaposition between Iceland and Australia repeatedly recurs within Fed to Red Birds.
In her debut, Rijn Collins has evoked a portrait of Iceland – of both the landscape, and the people who inhabit it. Collins’ text is dedicated to the macabre, and to shadows glimpsed only in passing. It is a narrative about the beauty that can be found in the morbid. Fed to Red Birds seeks to explore the ways in which identity and intimacy intersect, and how people stay in touch with the past through their passions – and obsessions.
Fed to Red Birds, Rijn Collins
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 8 March 2023