Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout

Dawn, a much-sought-after young opera singer, has over committed herself to work and taken on one too many roles, with the unfortunate result of an onstage blunder that has her on several months of voice rest. Not only is she embarrassed about what happened, but she has been given the dubious job of teaching a whistling class. And she doesn’t even know how to whistle.

All that came out was a hissing. My tongue was too close to the roof of my mouth. I tried again. Another hissing sound came out. I was blowing too hard. I worked at it until my jaw tensed and my cheeks ached, still failing to produce a decent note. The aftermath of my fiasco rushed back to me then, when I’d received pity and hugs from the same caked faces whose voices whispered behind the scenes, auditioning for my roles.

At home, her husband has announced that his brother Tariq is coming to stay while he undergoes cancer treatments, but that he himself will mostly be traveling for work. Not only that, but Tariq has an African Grey who is more work than a toddler. Tulip eats small amounts of food many times a day, has toys and equipment that take up a lot of space, needs cleaning up daily, and demands lots of attention. She gets cranky (you could even say she has tantrums) when things don’t go her way. But, also like toddlers, she’s cute, and the more she needs you, they more attached you become.

(I have to admit that I became very curious about African Greys while reading this book. If you’re interested, too, here are African Greys doing some of the things Tulip does in the book: taking a bath, whistling, enjoying some cuddle time, and getting angry.)

Still on her back, Tulip undid the bow. Then he flipped her upright and stretched his legs out, and she walked down them. When he wiggled his toes, she chewed on his sock.

“She needs distraction,” he added. “Last year she got kicked out of parrot club for disobedience. So we joined birdwatching. But the birders said she was too noisy on hikes.” He pulled another ribbon out and tied it into knots, which took longer for his bird to undo.

Dawn’s class is made up of a group of whistlers who call them themselves the Warblers, and they’re an odd mixture of young and old, crass and polite, motherly and jocular. It’s not long before Dawn stops pretending to be above them and begins to join them instead. As do Tariq and Tulip, who are a big hit.

I had been taught by world-class vocalists and toured the globe, performing in famous opera houses, concert halls and cathedrals. I had been involved in complex, costly productions with dozens of singers, musicians, set designers and choreographers. But I had never heard anything like what the Warblers played for me then.

What did they play for her, you ask? Roger Whitaker’s ‘Finnish Whistler.’

I also learned from the Warblers that a blue whales’ tongue weighs as much as an elephant and that “they sing quieter now because of the acidity in the ocean.” The smallest tongue belongs to the fairyfly – “you’d need a microscope to see it.” (This has not been completely fact-checked.)

There are three big reasons to read Why Birds Sing:

  • the Warblers
  • Tulip. Especially Tulip – she steals the show. (And almost makes you want to get a parrot until you remember that they live 50-70 years.)
  • to warm your cold soul

The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang the best. — John James Audubon

Further Reading:

Another wonderful book featuring a parrot is Yiddish for Pirates by Gary Barwin.

Amy Jones at 49th Shelf: “Why Birds Sing is an ode to the families we choose, and the love that chooses us (whether we want it to or not.) This is a beautiful novel full of humour, warmth, sorrow, and above all, music.

The Urban Info Girl:Why Birds Sing is just so lovely. Nina Berkhout has written a gorgeous, multi-layered novel that illustrates the beauty that can be revealed when the collapsing of one life leads to the building of another. Especially once you understand what exactly it is that you’re living for.”

Thank you to ECW Press for providing me with a copy of this book!

18 thoughts on “Why Birds Sing by Nina Berkhout

  1. urbaninfogirl says:

    Thanks for selecting my review for your further reading section, I appreciate it!

    Also, Tulip still holds space in my mind, I think about her often.

  2. wadholloway says:

    I’m going to go through your blog and see if I can choose a Canadian (non-Atwood) book on Audible, but this is not it. Why is it assumed an opera singer can teach whistling? Why does Dawn put up with her husband? (Those are rhetorical questions).

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, you could probably call it a late coming-of-age, or maybe a re-evaluation of the chosen life path. I think you’d like it!
      I did a lot of googling about parrots after reading this book! 🙂

  3. buriedinprint says:

    Isn’t it wonderful to be able to look up all this book-related stuff on the ‘net? Imagine how long you’d’ve had to wait for an ILL about parrots if you’d read this twenty years ago. Also, how attached you’d be to your parrot if you’d decided to adopt one instead. (Or, two.)

    • Naomi says:

      Sometimes I wonder how I managed reading books without the internet to answer all my questions? But then, I don’t really remember having burning questions as I read. Which makes me wonder if they fact that I *can* google things whenever I want makes me *want* to more than I might have 20 years ago?

      • wadholloway says:

        Even now my inclination is to skip over stuff I don’t know. I have to force myself to look it up – maps of foreign countries, dates of wars, bio’s of ‘well known’ historical figures. And I’m glad that I can.

      • Naomi says:

        I’m glad, too. If I don’t have some kind of googling device handy I have a hard time continuing with my reading when I have a question in my head. In those situations I write it down for later and keep going.

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