About Me

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Victoria, Australia
I am an author of Young Adult Fiction books. I worked as a teacher in the Pacific Islands for seven years. Whilst in the Solomon Islands I taught PSSC English before the ethnic tension in 2000 forced a change of plans. I love Pacific literature, art and music. You can find me on Facebook at Beth Montgomery Author.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dead Birds by Trevor Shearston

I watched a David Attenborough documentary on Sunday night about Birds of Paradise. As ever the photography was beautiful and the dancing birds were just gorgeous but the whole thing brought to mind a disturbing book I read a few years ago called Dead Birds. Written by Trevor Shearston the novel is a  depiction of Italian naturalist and explorer Luigi D'Albertis' journey up the Fly River in Papua New Guinea. Set in pre-colonial 1877, the book depicts the violence of the plundering of indigenous communities by Europeans in search of biological and anthropological specimens.

Source; Greenpeace.org
    Be warned, this book is really hard work. The narrator is gross, an 'utamu' or spirit of a beheaded tribesman. Once you get past the macabre fact that his head is placed in a specimen bottle you actually get to like the spirit and hope for revenge.

Dead Birds (ABC Books, 2007)

   Shearston has done a terrific job maintaining the tribesman's voice throughout and showing his astonishment at all the technology and behaviour of the foreigners. It requires a lot of concentration though and I found I had to reread paragraphs to clarify meaning when I was tired.
   The narrator is confined to the boat for most of the story so we don't get to see a lot of the action. Hundreds of Birds of Paradise were shot, all in the name of science. Not that I wanted to be in on the hunting expeditions but surely a lot of the characters' interactions would be better presented out in the jungle.

source: ocellated.com

   As a reading experience it was challenging, a mind bending exercise for a writer studying  point of view and voice. However I wouldn't recommend it as a spot of light reading.

   It must be remembered that the portrayl is fictitious and D'Albertis did make it back to Europe in real life, however I found the historical theme really whetted my appetite for more information of early exploration of the Pacific and the work of naturalists.  


  1. Wow, it sounds like an extraordinary read. As someone who likes fiction to be somewhat different (not because of the macabre element) and with loads of natural history thrown in, I'll be looking out for it this Christmas. Thanks for the review, Beth!

  2. I hope you find it and enjoy it. It really is something tough to get your head around but the effort is worthwhile.

  3. This book is hideously fascinating due to the nature of the narrator who happens to be a severed head in a specimen bottle. The story is a fictional account of D'Albertis's exploration of PNG and how he shot and recorded for history hundreds of birds of paradise. Not for the squeamish, this one, but a brilliant piece of writing.


  4. As someone who explored PNG on foot in the 80s, I was enthralled by this book. Shearston's understands of the spirit life as the PNG peoples know it; the choice of a spirit telling the narrative is more than fictional whimsy.......it is the reality of those people.