Danielle Hanson on Clifford Garstang’s The Last Bird of Paradise

The Last Bird of Paradise is set in the city-state of Singapore, an island at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula known for its lush tropical rainforests, multicultural urban sophistication, and wealth. I took my first trip to Singapore this past December, right before being asked to review this book, and the idea of being virtually transported back was an experience that I didn’t hesitate to say yes to. 

The book delivered on reminding me of aspects and locations in the city that I enjoyed, but I’m very happy that it didn’t stop there, as Garstang wasn’t content with location being the most interesting character of the book. The Last Bird of Paradise goes deeper into the island and its history, and deeper into humanity, and I respect the author for it. 

The book pivots between two time periods: the early 2000’s and the year 1915. The narration is from the viewpoint and experiences of two women, each of which arrives to Singapore to make a new home in this unfamiliar place. Moving to a new culture is often a time to examine one’s life, one’s choices, one’s values, and one’s relationships. These women do just that, each reacting to their environments and times. Although their stories are quite different, the similarities mark certain consistencies about human experience.

Aislinn is a driven attorney in New York City, married to a successful banker. Traumatized by the recent terrorist attacks of 9/11, she reluctantly agrees to move with her husband to Singapore when he gets a promotion, leaving her career and life behind. She struggles to find her identity and purpose. While decorating her new apartment, she discovers the work of an artist, Elizabeth Pennington, and tries to find out more about her. 

In a parallel story, Elizabeth Pennington was a budding artist sent to Singapore in 1915 to live with her uncle after a series of family tragedies in England. The Singapore she arrives in is a British colony, on the outskirts of empire near the beginning of World War I.

Aislinn and Elizabeth each struggle with romantic connections. Both are imperfect, unreliable and unfaithful. Both are connected to flawed and selfish men. Both are witness to intrigue and betrayal in the surrounding society. Both are witness to the economic abuse of the less powerful. The drama from these relationships is a perfect counterpoint to the seriousness of the novel’s underlying questions.

Moreover, by juxtaposing these two women’s stories, Garstang examines several very human themes from different vantage points. What do we mean when we speak about “home” and “family”? What role do these ideas play in a life? How does one balance family versus career as a woman, not just through time, but more vitally through identity? For women specifically, what does independence look like in practice? How have these concepts of identity changed over time? What is owed to one’s family? What is the duty of citizens, as members of a larger human group? What is the role of government in individual lives? 

Garstang doesn’t shy away from discussing colonialization, how it looked in 1915 and its aftermath today. Singapore might be a thriving and wealthy state, but it has always had a heavy-handed government and high level of racial inequality, despite having multiculturalism set in its constitution. What an interesting setting in which to examine post-colonialist society. Singapore is within sight of Malaysia to the north, and of Indonesia to the south. The British Empire set up a trading post there in the early 1800’s as part of its Straits Settlements, and there were ties with and emigration from India, China, Europe, and Malaysia. Singapore became self-governing in 1959, with full independence in 1965. Ethnically, the population today is mainly Chinese, with substantial Malay and Indian minorities. Singapore sits on one of the world’s busiest shipping corridors, and is known as an international business hub. All of these factors make it an enticing and interesting background for a novel. Where people of different backgrounds come together, an exchange across the boundaries of identity and culture can highlight what is truth and what is culture masquerading as truth.

The Last Bird of Paradise is two stories of women from different periods of time and of different circumstances, but it serves to illuminate gender politics, geopolitical forces, and the results of power imbalance in many forms. Garstang gives us characters and settings that are microcosms of these forces, so the book doesn’t become didactic, but instead, offers complexity and nuance.

Danielle Hanson is author of The Night Is What It Eats, winner of the Elixir Press Prize (forthcoming), Fraying Edge of Sky, winner of the Codhill Press Poetry Prize, and Ambushing Water, Finalist for the Georgia Author of the Year Award, and editor of an anthology forthcoming from Press 53 and a book of literary criticism. She is Marketing Director for Sundress Publications. She teaches poetry at UC Irvine.