Jessica Miller’s second novel, The Republic of Birds, is a meticulously written, profoundly feminist story of exile and power. It takes place against a landscape conjured out of Russian folklore and nineteenth and early twentieth century history, and draws its storybook magic from the tropes of middle grade fantasy even as it vigorously interrogates them.
Sometimes it’s possible to observe an author finding her way into a story. The early chapters of The Republic of Birds might seem a little opaque to younger readers unfamiliar, for example, with its proliferation of Russian names, or unused to its embedding of history, geography and folklore. But these are the careful foundations of a rich and marvellous story and will reward the patient reader.
It begins when twelve-year-old Olga Oblomova travels to a snowy outpost of Tsaretsvo with her family. Exile from their comfortable city life is punishment by the Tsarina for Olga’s father’s professional failings. Their new – and, they all hope, temporary – home is the Centre for Avian Observation on the border with the Republic of Birds, the enemy of Tsaretsvo since the War of the Skies over one hundred years before. Now a strained peace exists between the two nations, soon to be shattered when the birds kidnap Olga’s little sister, Mira.
Make no mistake, this is a genuine adventure – involving perilous expeditions as much as self-exploration, as Olga ventures not only into the snowy wastes of the Unmappable Blank but into the uncharted territories of her own identity. Central to the story are the yagas – girls and women with magical powers, based on Baba Yaga of Russian folklore, complete with huts on chicken legs. Baba Yaga has gained renewed currency in the internet age as a paradoxical icon of female power. In Olga’s story, it’s a power both dangerous and liberating.
Structurally and thematically, this novel is an exploration of the stories that shape Olga’s understanding of the world: the memoirs of the Tsarish cartographers, Olga’s heroes; the dark speculations about Bleake Steppe Finishing School for Girls of Unusual Ability; and the history of the enmity with birds that creates the book’s central drama. These stories exist in many forms: in official history books, as rumours and memories, and start to come undone as Olga steps out into the world and encounters a contradictory reality.
Most importantly, the stories can be re-written. When Olga narrates her adventures in the forest in the manner of the Tsarish cartographers, she writes herself into a history in which, previously, there have been ‘no women’. Olga’s is a patriarchal world that requires girls and women to conform to unthreatening behaviours and appearance in ways regrettably familiar to the modern reader. Unable to master a suitable ‘talent’ such as fan waving or dancing for the Spring Blossom Ball – a kind of debutante ceremony for young teenage girls – Olga is both figuratively and literally unable to perform prescribed femininity. The Republic of Birds depicts the transition from girlhood to womanhood as a stepping into power – a power so potent that it has to be quashed or banished. To be socially acceptable, Olga has to pretend to be something that doesn’t scare anyone, but she can’t. It’s a weak position, one in which she articulates her learned, internalised hatred for what she is. But she finds power when her can’t changes to a won’t.
There is clear-eyed treatment of female envy and a reimagining of the stepmother trope, with unexpected outcomes that broaden the terms on which girls might allow for their own feelings and rivalries. In this story, above all, people don’t need to become versions of an ideal to be redeemed. An entertaining cast of bit characters, each with her own eccentricities and magic, provides a refreshingly nuanced portrayal of female alliance. At first glance this is a quest for somewhere to belong – but in this endlessly unexpected and bewitching tale, Olga will learn to ask something more radical of the world than just that.
The Republic of Birds
by Jessica Miller
Publisher: Text Publishing
Publication date: March 2020