No more than 26 pages into Chris Killen's debut novel, its narrator reconciles himself to the fact that things aren't going to get much better. "I don't want to be part of things any more," he laments. An impatient reader might acquiesce, mistaking this novel as yet another male-in-crisis fiction about unrequited love and loneliness. But those who seek something unique in the contemporary British novel will delight in this adroit, snappy debut, a dark and beguiling meditation on the weight of being, conveying the notion of the trapped individual riveted to an existence that makes no sense.
Yet The Bird Room is a novel so fresh it practically pings with energy. The bulk of this slim debut follows narrator Will, a bored twentysomething stuck in a job he hates, as his relationship with the smart and alluring Alice slides deeper into paranoiac turmoil. He becomes convinced that Alice is about to embark on an affair with his childhood friend, a minor artist also called Will. Mirroring this forlorn tale of niggling unease is the darker account of Helen, a wannabe actress who prefers to find work answering strangers' lewd propositions on internet "adult contact" sites.
The Bird Room is a novel of masks and shifting identities, used by each character to hide from an alien and mesmerising world. The most interesting of these masks, apart from Helen's somnambulistic veil, is possibly the artist Will's, as he floats from one exhibition to the next in the vainglorious hope that some kind of authenticity will be achieved. Will's art, his pursuits of the opposite sex, and the art world, are all meaningless. Yet there is also something undeniably real about him.
The fragmentary make-up of The Bird Room is seamlessly woven into a perfectly formed whole that fizzes with deadpan wit and cutting one-liners. Killen peppers the narration with modern technologies; whereas lesser writers using similar hooks might get carried away, Killen possesses enough savoir-faire to understand that a story still needs to be told. The Bird Room, a novel of misguided youth, is an exciting debut from a novelist already beginning to display maturity beyond his years.