This book is heart-warming, life-affirming, happy and sad. It will make you laugh and cry. The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird (Simon and Schuster 2022) by Diane Connell will appeal to anyone who loved Eleanor Oliphant, or the characters in Ove or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This is the kind of book that transports the reader immediately, from the first page, to a place of deep immersion in the life of a young protagonist and the tricky navigations of their life. The voice in this book is unique, distinct and so completely identifiable right from the start. Ricky Bird is a name you will not forget.
The book opens with the words: ‘She believed there were two types of disaster.’ Ricky Bird is no stranger to both types. She is completely devoted to her younger brother Ollie and loves making up stories and imaginary worlds for him, building him forts and protecting him from the world. But their father has moved away to start a new life and both children feel abandoned. Ollie begins to have ominous hospital visits and Ricky doesn’t quite know what is wrong. Their mother is so overwhelmed with their circumstances that she barely notices that Ricky is having problems too.
And then there’s Dan, their mother’s new partner, who has insinuated himself into their lives and who annoys the heck out of Ricky from the very start. He is certainly no replacement for their father.
This story features excellent characterisation and a great plot. There are two very special aspects to the novel. One is the very distinct voice of Ricky Bird, who will stay with you long after the last page. Her quirky sense of humour, her imagination and the way in which she views the world are delivered with wit, grace and unforgettable language. We get right inside Ricky’s head. Or do we? Ricky’s imagination is certainly evolved from the very beginning, but is she an entirely reliable narrator, or is there more going on than we are privy to? The novel reveals the subtle and complex state of her mind and personality with each chapter, and the ending is surprising, shocking, painful and sad, yet somehow also inevitable and hopeful and comprehensible and satisfying.
Ricky’s life might be unpredictable and even seem to be spiralling out of control, but her character remains dependable, thoughtful, insightful and playful. She is wise beyond her years, even if she doesn’t know it.
There is a large cast of supporting characters who all have a part to play. Connell explores everything from the social angst of adolescence to nosy neighbours, from distracted parents to smarmy hangers-on, from new friendships to the familiarity of sibling attachment. Ricky’s imagination, pluck, courage and determination shine. What she lacks, she creates.
I absolutely loved Ricky Bird and her witty, insouciant, funny, critical, quick and loving personality. She had me laughing out loud in the first few pages with her irrepressible humour and deprecating depictions of those in her orbit. This is a book to pass to friends and loved ones.