Almost every novel on the Time list is dark in some way. Some more than others, of course, but they all have that element of darkness.
None of them, though, reach the level of The Painted Bird. This novel, y’all, it’s brutal.
Imagine a 6-year-old Jewish kid, abandoned by his parents, witnessing a gauntlet of tortuous events—a young teenager’s eyeballs gouged out, a man falling into a pit of ravenous rats, a woman brutally raped to the point she dies—and that’s just the beginning.
Jerzy Kosinksi originally said The Painted Bird was a memoir but later admitted, after much criticism, that wasn’t true. That’s good, because the novel is too unbelievable to be true.
Of course, terrible things happen to people. And, of course, lots of terrible things happen to some people. So it’s not that. The problem with The Painted Bird is this kid, while his life is awful, is repeatedly a random witness to some of the most over-the-top vile things you’ll ever read about.
It’s to the point of being comical. It’s like Jerzy Kosinski had some quite of wheel of torture and he spun it when deciding what the kid would be a witness to next—a decapitated puppy, a waterboarded kitten, an a bullfrog orgy? No, none of that was in the book but it would’ve fit in just perfectly.
If you watch Game of Thrones, imagine some of the more brutal scenes—then imagine a 6 year old being witness to all of that—and you pretty much have The Painted Bird.
I don’t have a lot else to say about this novel. Kosinski is an engaging writer. Despite the extreme darkness of the material, I connected with his style. I won’t go too much into the ending, either, because spoilers and all.
But Kosinski’s writing style is the only positive thing I can say about The Painted Bird. It’s just too over-the-top dark for me to recommend—unless that’s your thing.
I’ll give The Painted Bird one tortured puppy out of five.
The Meaning: The title comes from a story in the book. A birdcatcher catches a bird then paints it multiple colors. Upon returning to flight, he’s an outcast to the other birds.
Highlights: Kosinski can write.
Lowlights: Never has one 6 year old witnessed so many over-the-top graphic events in the existence of literature or real life.
Memorable Line: “It mattered little if one was mute; people did not understand one another anyway. They collided with or charmed one another, hugged or trampled one another, but everyone knew only himself. His emotions, memory, and senses divided him from others as effectively as thick reeds screen the mainstream from the muddy bank. Like the mountain peaks around us, we looked at one another, separated by valleys, too high to stay unnoticed, too low to touch the heavens.”
Final Thoughts: Nope.