Book review: The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird by Diane Connell

(courtesy Simon & Schuster)

If only real life could be as good as the ones we imagine for ourselves.

Twelve-year-old Ricky Bird, the titular protagonist of The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird, knows how good these made-up wafts of storybook confection can be; while her actual life falls apart around her as her parents separate and her mum leaves Brixton, the part of London they have always called home, for the unknown surrounds of Camden, way across the city, she is able to keep her little brother, six-year-old Ollie, and herself, enthralled with the idea of the magical, whimsically escapist lives they could be leading.

In her wildly imaginative tales, which push the envelopes of credulity to breaking and beyond – but then shouldn’t fantastical storytelling shred reality in the process? – their world is not constrained by illness or bullies, by absent fathers or overwhelmed mothers but by places that owe nothing to anyone except the ability to captive with their outlandish difference and possibility.

It will not surprise you that Ricky is a talented writer, a girl able to take the wild ideas in her head and put them down on paper in such a way that Katie, the empathetic teacher of programs for kids at the local community centre, is in awe of her storytelling prowess.

She may not able to remold reality to her liking – that would be one with her mum and dad together, Ollie not ill and everyone firmly back in Brixton with the gardening allotment that always grounded her – but Ricky can at least escape into worlds so palpably real that they feel like they spring forth from her mind and take on the shape and form of items in a world that badly needs their magically escapist touch.

“For the first time in days, Ricky allowed herself to relax. It felt wonderful to have Katie’s approval. She loved the way everyone was laughing. It was like the old days in Brixton. Light and friendly. When she glanced across the table, however, she saw that Abbie was crumpling up her piece of paper and immediately felt sorry for her. Not everyone knew how to assemble words into a story. ‘It’s a gift,’ her father told her. ‘A handy gift to have if push comes to shove.'” (P. 35)

And if anyone needs an escape from reality, it’s Ricky.

Outwardly tough and defiant, at her heart Ricky is someone who simply wants to know she is important and loved, that she matters and that she is known for who she really is (the exact nature of this identity struggle is best left to the reading but suffice to say Ricky is not comfortable with where and who she is, a double whammy which Connell explores with empathetic honesty and moving insight).

Wherever she turns, life is going south.

She hates the new estate they live in, the tough girls, Caitlin and Abie who rule the roost and include her only to hurt and exclude her later, and her mother’s new partner Dan who appears to be all smiles and charm but who is hiding something though Ricky is never sure what.

All she knows as The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird progresses is that the real world leaves a great deal to be desired – the old man who looks after the estate’s community garden seems alternately cruelly indifferent to her or guardedly inclusive and she has no real friends to speak, save for Jack who isn’t absent more than he’s not – and that her real strength and power lies in the richly transportive stories she tells.

(courtesy official Diane Connell author site (c) Krystyna FitzGerald-Morris)

A love letter to the power of stories to save and shape us, The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird is also a cautionary warning that sometimes all that escapism, seductively comforting though it is, can come back to bite us.

That’s not of course Ricky’s intention; she may have poor judgement at times and go along with people and ideas she should summarily reject, but she loves Ollie and the cosy world her stories creates for him and her to retreat into, literally at times as pillows and blankets stand in for the security of her outrageously wonderful flights of imagination.

But as this immensely affecting, if sometimes quirky novel progresses, we begin to understand that while fictional reshaping of reality can be an escapist balm for the soul, it can’t always keep the horrors of the day-to-day at bay.

As some pretty terrible things begin to happen to Ricky, the exact nature of which are far too spoiler-y to share here but which give The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird a hard, gritty edge that is confronting but which serve it well – Ricky is forced to confront one of the most terrible parts of growing up which is that all the wishing and fantasising in the world can’t make life play nice.

At some level Ricky knows this, but so important are her stories to her, and so vital are the links they give her to Ollie, Katie, her mother and father and the blighted neighbourhood around her, that she clings to them for dear life even when it is clear they are no longer up to the task of rebutting the cold, dead hand of reality in all its invidious forms.

“In Brixton, she’d once watched a boy slice open an old golf ball he’d found in his grandfather’s shed. Inside the knobbly skin was layer upon layer of rubber band. When the boy bounced the ball, the band began to unwind. She had watched, fascinated, as it unravelled in a volatile, chaotic way, getting smaller and smaller with each bounce. Now she was the one unravelling, sloughing off layer upon layer of herself – her history, her identity, her family, her friends – all the things that had once given her life meaning.” (P. 182)

At its heart The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird is nowhere near as quirkily light and bright as the title might suggest.

True, Ricky’s life is improbable in many ways, and in amongst all the dross there are gems, both actual and forthcoming, but there are also some wretchedly awful things that Connell doesn’t shy away from tackling.

There is a rawness and honesty to this story which manages to both celebrate the hope and possibility of storytelling while admitting to the grim truths of life and that all the imaginative takes in the world cannot make up for terrible things happening.

They can ease the pain and they can provide a way to deal with them, but they cannot forestall or erase them once they have come into being, and as The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird takes our likeable if fallible protagonist further down the road to life’s sometime cold, dead heart, we ache for this funny and capable, bewildered and vulnerable little girl to be spared the very worst of life.

That doesn’t happen, of course, because if nothing else The Improbable Life of Ricky Bird is unflinchingly honest, but there is a warmth and hopefulness to this story, even in its darkest places, that draws you in, immersing you fully and completely in the evocatively escapist glory and wonder of storytelling while admitting that even something this perfect and good can’t ever fully protect you from what life throws at you.

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