First Fiction Fridays: The Afterlife of Birds

September 18, 2015

The Afterlife of Birds, the debut novel from acclaimed poet Elizabeth Philips, is about our obsessions: how they can falsely bring us closer to the ones we love and truly push them away, all at once. The two brothers central to the story, Henry and Dan Jett, have their own share of obsessions – from running to bones – and it is the tangle of these that bring the novel to its stirring, human conclusion. Read about why you should read this novel as "anyone who wonders".

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The Afterlife of Birds (Freehand Books, 2015)


Elizabeth Philips has been writing professionally for thirty-five years and is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Torch River (Brick Books). She has won a National Magazine Award, an Alberta Magazine Award, and two Saskatchewan Book Awards. She has edited over forty books of poetry and fiction and has been the Director of the Banff Centre’s Writing with Style program since 2010. She lives in Saskatoon with her partner and two Cairn Terriers. The Afterlife of Birds is her first novel.

Why You Need to Read This Now:

It’s hard not to fall in love with the characters in The Afterlife of Birds—even if one of them, Henry Jett, has an obsession with finding deceased birds, cleaning away their flesh, and then putting their skeletons back together—a smelly, yet intriguing process called bird articulation. It is part of Henry’s larger fascination with bones of all kinds. They bring him closer to the natural world and help him to understand the place of death in life.

Henry’s brother, Dan, also has an obsession: running. It’s so extreme that he ends up running away from all the meaningful relationships in his life. In a desperate attempt to coax him back, and find common ground between them, Henry goes on a mission to find Dan a penis bone to use as an amulet while racing. (Yup, that’s right: some penises—like those belonging to racoons, wolverines, and walruses—have a bone in them! Who knew?)

When his brother runs out of his life, Henry starts engaging with the people around him differently, and, in doing so, learns to become a participant in his own life. Maria Bogdanov, an enchanting Russian émigré, nourishes Henry, not only with soup and honey cake, but with stories: family stories about the Soviet regime at the time of the Stalinist purges, and then further back in time to the Tsars.  These stories have a transformation power, and help Henry to articulate things about himself that he might not otherwise know.

The Afterlife of Birds has so much to offer on many different levels; it is at once a love story and a compelling portrait of the prairie landscape. It has quirky characters, beautiful descriptions of the natural world, mystical stories of far-away places, and impeccable precision of language.

When asked who should read The Afterlife of Birds, Elizabeth Philips replied: “Anyone who likes a good story—or many good stories; anyone who has a difficult brother; anyone who has lost a parent too soon; anyone who likes very good sentences; anyone who thinks a penis bone is interesting and maybe a little goofy; anyone who likes bears; anyone who wants to see the earth as home; anyone curious about how birds can have an afterlife; anyone who likes birds; anyone who wonders if she is living the right life; anyone who wonders if he is living the right life; anyone who has made a romantic mistake; anyone mystified by the way we live now; anyone who wonders.” 

No matter who you are, The Afterlife of Birds is sure to touch you in unexpected ways.

What Other People Are Saying about The Afterlife of Birds:

“Philips’ novel is a gift, her prose flawless, her characters endlessly engaging; the book itself offering us a new voice in fiction, one that we should listen to with all our hearts.”
—Patrick Lane

“Liz Philips has accomplished the most difficult thing in literature. She has written an original love story.”  
—Fred Stenson

“Like its central character Henry Jett, The Afterlife of Birds is an original: alert to nature, clear-eyed and true. A lovely novel-it returned me to the world refreshed.” 
—Joan Thomas

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Thanks so much to Anna at Freehand Books for sharing The Afterlife of Birds with us.


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