RIJN COLLINS is an award-winning short story writer and audio story producer. Her debut novel, Fed to Red Birds, is set in Iceland and is a moving story which explores place, connection and identity.
As AKINA HANSEN writes, it’s a striking novel about a bewitched young mind.
There are few places in the world as scenically diverse and spellbinding as Iceland. For centuries the country has captivated artists and poets alike – and it’s no wonder – sparkling glaciers, sprawling deep green mountains, and majestic waterfalls are just some of its unique and magical features.
For author Rijn Collins, Iceland has mesmerised her for years as she’s always been drawn to colder climates.
‘I am a winter witch, through and through. I was born at the winter solstice and will forever be drawn to snowy and solitary lands,’ she tells me.
It’s unsurprising then, that Rijn’s debut novel, Fed to Red Birds, is set in Iceland. She’s visited the country numerous times and after a month-long writing residency in a remote Icelandic fishing village, her novel was born.
‘I love the beauty of the language, the wild and white landscape, the reverence for words and the spells released through them. I’m smitten, I really am. I would live there in a heartbeat.’
These sentiments are carried throughout her novel and are shared with her main character, Elva, who moves from her home in Melbourne, Australia, to Reykjavík in Iceland.
Elva is bewitched by Iceland. Not only because it is beautiful, but her beloved grandfather, Afi, who is a famous children’s author, lives in the northern part of the country. And most importantly, because Elva believes that her mother returned there after disappearing when she was a child.
In hopes of living in Iceland more permanently, Elva rigorously studies the language to pass the immigration test. While there, she befriends an older British woman called Grace who hires her to work at her shop of curiosities, which displays many unusual things, including taxidermy. Since working with Grace, Elva has taken up taxidermy herself, finding the process beautiful, comforting and meditative.
If you’re like me and you don’t know much about the process behind taxidermy, you might find the idea of preserving a dead animal for show as inhumane. This is likely the case when an animal’s body is sourced unethically. But in the case of Elva, we learn a much tender side to this art form. She preserves only the bodies of animals which are found dead – typically the result of predatory cats – and in turn she feels she is honouring their lives by giving them another kind of ‘life’.
Rijn did several taxidermy workshops as part of her research for this novel. She importantly notes that, ‘My teachers are vegan and the animals are ethically sourced; the days of the hunt are long gone. We approach each preservation with great tenderness for the animal, which I hope I’ve infused into Elva,’ she explains.
And indeed, this tenderness is captured by Rijn. Her descriptions of Elva’s taxidermy attempts are written thoughtfully and with care. Notably, Elva’s character uses taxidermy as a kind of reprieve from the outside world.
Over the course of Fed to Red Birds Elva struggles with anxiety and in turn keeps to herself more often than not. When her grandfather Afi suffers a stroke, her world begins to unravel, and we see how this exacerbates her fragile mental state. For Elva, this manifests in the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
‘I also used OCD as a means of “controlling” the pressures of my environment. Like Elva, this has been deeply problematic,’ Rijn tells me.
‘My OCD as a child was horrendous; I believed that if I stopped counting, my family would perish, and I would be solely responsible. That’s an extraordinary pressure for a child. The menace and melancholy followed me, at times, into adulthood. But it’s not always noticeable, which is why we need to take tender care of each other. And though it can be even more challenging, of ourselves, too.’For Elva, much of her struggle is tied to her past. We learn early in the novel that she is obsessed with a children’s book her grandfather wrote, which is also titled Fed to Red Birds. Over the course of the novel, we discover its significance and how it has come to haunt her and her compulsions.
‘I wanted to explore the hold obsession can have on people, and the dark place in the mind it occupies,’ Rijn tells me.
‘Elva is flawed – as we all are, really. I would love for readers to see imperfections – in characters, in partners, in themselves – as not always something to shy away from or apologise for. It’s these bruises that make us human, and when we muster our bravery and are honest about them, it can allow us to connect.’
Despite leading a relatively quiet life, Elva enjoys the company of her Icelandic friend, Tolli, whom she visits regularly at the bar where he works. While he and Grace are strong pillars of support in Elva’s life, she ultimately refrains from sharing the most personal parts of her struggles with them. She yearns for and yet still avoids complete intimacy. That is until she meets Remy, a reserved and thoughtful painter from Brussels. They immediately connect and she finds herself more open to the possibility of intimacy and connection than ever before.
‘So much of my writing revolves around the inextricably linked concepts of identity and intimacy. I would like readers to see that owning the dark places in our minds can lead to greater understanding of ourselves and others, and that this alchemy can be beautiful,’ says Rijn.
As Elva gradually navigates this new relationship, her struggles are magnified by her new and, at times, isolating environment.
‘The book explores the vulnerability that comes from trying to find your feet in a new country, how unsettling it can be for the psyche, yet the courage behind it too. So much of my writing revolves around identity and isolation; I’m relentlessly fascinated by both, and the effect they can have on intimacy.
‘I’ve also left home and family to establish myself in a culture and language I wasn’t comfortable in – Remy’s hometown of Brussels,’ Rijn tells me.
It’s clear that Rijn has drawn from her own experiences, effectively capturing the vulnerability one experiences when navigating a foreign place. Indeed, the setting of Iceland and Australia magnifies the isolation and, at times, helplessness Elva feels.
‘Iceland is a spellbinding place; it gets under the skin. I wanted to draw on the cold, the quiet, the ever-present threat the land presents, of volcano, earthquake and avalanche. It’s a beautiful land, but it turns, fast. I wanted to mirror that in Elva’s childhood home of the Australian rainforest. They are polar opposites – blizzards and bushfires – but each land is equally menacing, and equally capable of regeneration.’
So much of Rijn’s own story and struggles are shared with Elva’s. But from this shared place, Rijn has painted a moving and authentic portrait.
‘I’ve kept a diary since I was seven. I have boxes and boxes of them. Sometimes I pour a wine and think: the year I lived in Brussels, or when I fell in love with The Cowboy? And I’ll climb back down the rungs of the words into my own stories.’
Fed to Red Birds is a thoughtful and poignant novel about place, identity and connection. Rijn takes us on a journey with Elva as she confronts her past and present and as she attempts to reconcile both her real and imagined worlds.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Once, investigating the causes of pica, a disorder where people are compelled to eat paper, She admits to ripping a page from her notebook and cradling it in the palm of her hand. She frowned, closed the curtains, but you know she opened my mouth.
Her first published writing was in feminist punk zines in the nineties, stapled together by hand. She has worked her way up to anthologies, literary journals, magazines, newspapers and podcasts, with work published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Going Down Swinging, Corium, Wigleaf, The Big Issue, Sundog Lit, Verity La and River Teeth Journal, among others.
Rain has been an Artist-in-Residence in a tiny Icelandic fishing village up near the Arctic Circle, the setting of her first novel, and again in a remote forest in Finland. She is deeply interested in stories of isolation and its effect on identity; whether geographical isolation, such as in far northern Iceland, or that which is more social and psychological in nature.
She drawn to the cold, the quiet, and the quirky.
She no longer eats her stories.