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Saturday, February 9, 2013


Poland’s fascinating tapestry of feathers and words will have universal appeal. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Last year, acclaimed author Marguerite Poland produced another superb publication – a book about childhood. Her own, mainly. Each of the 18 chapters is dedicated to a particular bird – not so much for its ornithological interest but what each meant to her as a young girl growing up in the Eastern Cape.

Originally intended as a gift for Poland’s daughters and granddaughters, her husband wisely persuaded her to send the story to Penguin Books who made the decision to publish it.

Don’t view this as a “birding” book. One look at the beautiful black and white image of the rarely-seen jiza bird on the cover by illustrator Craig Ivor will tell you that it promises something completely different. The expansive design layout with lots of “white space” brings a sense of the outdoors. Without the colours of the birds’ plumage to sidetrack the eye, Ivor offers a more intimate look at each species. Poland has commended him for having “a real gift for imparting expression through birds’ eyes”.

These illustrations set the tone of Poland’s personal story. From owls and swallows to shrikes and wagtails, the birds are all skilfully woven into her memories, whether real or imagined. She enjoyed a carefree childhood in the sense that she lived in a warm family environment and it was safe to wander off into the bush alone. Life was uncomplicated until she became old enough to notice that black and white people were not treated the same way and receiving no satisfactory explanation from her parents. Old enough to allow her mind to explore adventures of its own, a skill that would make her one of South Africa’s most popular authors. Old enough to start viewing boys as companions rather than playmates … and old enough to fall in love.

In her inimitable style, Poland has created a captivating book that is amusing, highly informative and often heartbreakingly poignant. In essence, it pays tribute to her mother and the relationship between them.

The story is interwoven with the myths, traditions and meanings behind birds and their names within Zulu and Xhosa culture. Poland is a specialist in Xhosa and Zulu mythology and speaks both languages fluently. Therefore this book also has a strong educational value.

Taken Captive by Birds now adds to the impressive string of literary successes she has achieved to date. These include the highly acclaimed The Abundant Herds as well as the novels Shades and Recessional for Grace. She has also written 11 children’s books as well as The Boy in You, the historical biography of St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown.

I admit I am biased towards this special creative being as I directed a dramatic adaptation of Shades, which I co-wrote with Patrick Collyer, and I read Recessional for Grace for Tape Aids for the Blind. In both instances, I was struck at how much depth there is to her work.

As for Taken Captive by Birds, Poland writes: “All my life I have been 'taken captive by birds'. Their doings are the thread that runs through childhood, the link to people and to place. Their appearance and their presence can at once recall a name, a scent, a morning full of song and exploration; an evening sorrow, a childhood fear. For, somehow, it is the birds that saw it all: those unobtrusive harbingers whose boundaries are defined by other laws than ours but whose ancient lore remains a cipher to remembrance for me.”

Taken Captive by Birds will open a delightful new world to those who have no idea which bird is what and bird experts will be fascinated by the Poland’s fascinating tapestry of feathers and words.

Taken Captive by Birds is published in hardback by Penguin Books, ISBN:9780143530442. Recommended Price R250. – Caroline Smart