Neurodiversity and Exhaustion in “All the Little Bird-Hearts” – Chicago Review of Books


This year’s Booker prize longlist has featured numerous introspective, hyperfocused character studies, and Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow’s All the Little Bird-Hearts is no exception. Centering Sunday Forrester, an eccentric woman who lives her life according to a highly structured, self-made routine, the novel takes an intriguing and slightly sinister turn as new neighbors move in: the freewheeling Vita and her accommodating husband Rollo. More than the events of the story, however, what makes All the Little Bird-Hearts stand out is Sunday’s all-consuming point of view, and the perpetual exhaustion she faces when navigating seemingly ordinary situations. And while this renders the novel exhausting at times, if one enjoy’s Sunday’s storytelling from the onset, they will find All the Little Bird-Hearts a captivating, skillfully written portrait.

While Lloyd-Barlow is herself on the autism spectrum, the word “autistic” is never used in relation to Sunday in the narrative. This can be attributed to the time, set in 1988 when autism remains underdiagnosed, especially in women. It is also due to pathologizing of neurodiversity, as Sunday is frequently maligned for her social differences. While her habits are largely harmless (eating white food and fizzy drinks, adopting days of silence, keeping to a rote, familiar job, and following the ethical code set by an obscure manners book and a set of Sicilian folktales), her behavior is immediately judged as either silly or inherently suspect. What dawns on the reader, if not Sunday herself, is the extent to which she has been victimized by her various loved ones, making the book both an illuminating and difficult read at times.

Sunday navigates everyday conversations with constant vigilance. She mouths unfamiliar accents to memorize the inflections of speech, she connects every decision to her outdated manners text, and frequently second guesses every decision she makes. Vita, her new neighbor, appears to be a kindred spirit due to her eschewing of social norms. She appreciates Sunday’s candor, stating “I love honest people,” appears in pajamas at all hours of the day, and seeks Sunday’s comfort and companionship when no one else does. Coupled with Sunday’s strained relationship with her daughter, Dolly, it is clear that despite Sunday’s discomfort with social norms, she craves intimacy, and is blind to the subterfuge behind Vita’s friendship.

Even more so than the falseness of Vita’s friendship, Dolly’s disregard of her mother’s thoughts and feelings is the most heartbreaking aspect of the narrative. While much of her distance, choosing the company of peers over that of her mother, feels like normal teenage behavior, it veers into cruelty when she befriends Vita and slowly distances herself from her mother, poking fun at her mother’s various habits and leaving her mother’s love unacknowledged. For any of us who regret poor behavior towards our own mothers, this element of the story will resonate indeed.

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All the Little Bird-Hearts represents a neurodiverse character’s plight in an exhausting world built for the neurotypical. By keeping its cast of characters small and cloistered, Lloyd-Barlow is able to highlight Sunday’s mindset and explore her gradual realization that even those closest to her may not have her best interests at heart, and that the cost of intimacy, even if greatly desired, may be too much to bear.

All the Little Bird-Hearts
By Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow
Algonquin Books
Published December 5, 2023

Malavika Praseed

Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms


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