The stories in Maria Mutch’s first collection explore, with varying degrees of success, intersections between the contemporary world and the dreamlike – sometimes nightmarish – tableaux of historical folk tales. A Canadian writer now based in Rhode Island, Mutch was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award for her 2014 memoir, Know the Night. In When We Were Birds, the author revisits such fairy-tale classics as Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard alongside wholly original stories.
The collection’s otherworldly bent is contained in its very title, which evokes some mythological setting where transformation between species is possible. The book’s structure positions the stories as oddly timeless: interspersed between the fictional pieces are works of nature photography, quotes from Ovid and Homer, and illustrations and excerpts from an 1879 amateur-taxidermy book. The stories are all given subtitles, a practice not in current favour, as if to disrupt our sense of modernity.
At its best, the collection is highly imaginative. In “The Peregrine at the End of the World,” the book’s vivid opener, a falcon nesting atop a skyscraper becomes human, subsequently surprising dinner-party attendees with her inability to control the impulse to hunt prey. The quizzical and melancholy “Very Old, Enormous” reimagines Glenn Gould as a winged zombie washed up from the ocean to the bemusement of small-town Maritimers.
The collection’s longer stories are the most effective. In “The Bastard Notebook,” the Renaissance-era villain Bluebeard is recast as a modern-day painter with a large social media following, who creates his artwork using the blood of his murdered wives. In the context of recent news items about serial killers and violence against women, the story feels eerily au courant. “The Logic of Loss,” a moody narrative about a couple who steal a baby, also feels as if its plot might easily be fashioned out of actual current events.
Several of the book’s shorter pieces are less engaging. “Ambivalence” – a brief autofictional exploration of the author’s own mixed emotions writing about Bluebeard – feels self-indulgent. Several other pieces of similar length are tonally consistent, but very little actually happens in them. When We Were Birds would have been stronger had some of these less developed pieces been excised.