Title: The Freedom of Birds
Author: Stephanie Parkyn
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 30th November 2021
Synopsis: Two French storytellers and a runaway girl travel through fairytale lands, Italian theatres, and the battlefields of France in search of a place to belong as Napoleon’s Empire falls, from the author of Josephine’s Garden.
Remi Victoire is the golden child among all the theatre orphans; he dreams of a life on a Paris stage. But when this future is stolen from him, Remi and his faithful friend Pascal turn their backs on Paris forever.
With Saskia, a runaway orphan girl, Remi and Pascal form a performing troupe, travelling through the fairytale lands that are home to the Brothers Grimm, before finding a safe haven in Venice.
As Napoleon’s vast Empire crumbles, the French storytellers discover that Paris itself is now at risk of invasion and they fear for the loved ones they have left behind.
From picturesque villages to Italian theatres and on to the battlefields outside of Paris, this is a beautifully told story about the bonds of love and friendship, the importance of stories, and finding a place to belong.
Remi and his friend, Pascal, have spent their childhoods as storytellers in the theatre – as orphans, but one day this is taken from them, and Remi and Pascal find themselves on the road, telling stories as they travel. In the end, they must leave Paris, and avoid the Napoleonic Wars. As they travel, they learn the Brothers Grimm are collecting and planning to publish the very stories they tell. Along the way, they meet Saskia, another orphan who has run away from violence. Together, as they traverse the lands of fairy tales and wonder, they become the Brothers Victoire as they seek the theatre company Remi and Pascal were once part of.
Yet the rumbles of war threaten them and what they are doing – and as they journey to seek the truth, they wonder what will become of what they knew and what they have created. Each character has their own distinct voice, and each is given equal weighting – so we come to understand what drives Remi, what drives Pascal and what drives Saskia throughout the novel, and I think Saskia was one of the most fascinating characters in the novel.
Continuing some of the stories in her first two books, but not specifically a sequel, Stephanie Parkyn again centres storytelling and the voices of those often ignored in history – the orphans, the ordinary people, and those who did not do grand things that gave them a name in history. Each book can be read separately as well, but it was fun to see how each connected to each other as the story unfolded through Remi, Pascal, and Saskia’s perspectives across the latest. It allowed each character to tell their story, to be seen as an individual and what it meant to create your own family – especially when each character had been abandoned by those who should have looked after them. It illustrates that sometimes family is what we make it – and that we also write our own story.
Again, the importance of story and storytelling, coupled with the theme of fairy tales in this novel is a key theme. The role of oral stories and telling stories through performance – such as the commedia dell’arte and other forms of theatre, and the start of the legacy that the Brothers Grimm would have on the legacy of fairy tales is at the heart of this novel. Partnering with this is the idea of the freedom and independence that Remi, Pascal, and Saskia have – the way they live their lives without constraints and looking out for each other as friends and as family. It is as much about them finding out who they are and where they belong amidst chaos and war, and amidst the nationalism that led to Napoleon’s downfall after the Battle of Waterloo, in stark contrast to the nationalism driving the Brothers Grimm to collect their fairy tales in the nation states of what would become Germany. These aspects enriched the novel, giving the characters a historical backdrop to stand out against as they were not what society expected, which is what made their relationship as a story loving family, as friends, work so well. And what made the build-up to later revelations so interesting – to see how they would react. It was heartbreaking at times, yet also uplifting to see Remi, Pascal, and Saskia fulfil so many different roles, and be allowed to be who they were, who they wanted to be throughout the novel, whilst also trying to blend into a dangerous society. I loved that it picked up on little threads dropped in Parkyn’s previous two books and showed that each was interconnected yet individual at the same time – and it will be interesting to one day read all three consecutively to see if the connections can be made in this way.
Like the previous two books, The Freedom of Birds allows the characters to be themselves, to grapple with what they face within their society, and to at times, use what they know about that society to their advantage to survive. It is a story about survival and love – family, fairy tales, friends, art and theatre – and the importance that these things play in our lives, and what it means to celebrate and embrace the arts in society – that the arts reflect society back and show us the power of storytelling in times of hardship and what stories can do when we feel hopeless and isolated, as many of us have felt in the past two years of the pandemic. Another wonderful historical fiction novel that eloquently balances fact and fiction to capture the imagination of readers, and focuses on love of family for its love story.