A Box of Birds is my second novel. It was published in London by Unbound in 2013.
Neuroscientist Dr Yvonne Churcher has problems in the world beyond her lab. One of her students, James, a dangerously attractive animal rights campaigner, has set out to challenge her certainties about how the brain works. His brilliant, unstable friend, Gareth, is obsessed with the biochemical basis of memory. When Gareth tries to persuade Yvonne to get involved with a plan to stimulate memory artificially, it sets off a chain of events involving unscrupulous biotech companies, stolen brain-mapping data and a strange brand of eco-terrorism.
Set in a near-future world of experimental brain research, A Box of Birds combines the pace of a literary thriller with a darkly intense love story. It brilliantly dramatizes the clash between two of the predominant philosophical positions of our age: the materialist view that science has all the answers and that ‘we’ are nothing more than brain cells and neurotransmitters, and the therapy-inspired view that the stories we tell about ourselves and our pasts have the capacity to change our future.
As Yvonne Churcher is drawn towards an ever more complex and disturbing truth, she has to face tough questions. Can neuroscience really change our understanding of who we are? Or are we all at the mercy of our own need to make coherent stories?
Buy the trade paperback edition from Bookshop.org.
Buy the limited edition hardback from Unbound.
You can see me talk about the book in this pitch video.
An early version of the first chapter of A Box of Birds was published in New Writing 14, selected and edited by Lavinia Greenlaw and Helon Habila.
‘Arrestingly good prose… A thought-provoking novel that wrestles with the fundamentals of human nature.’ Financial Times
‘A pleasantly sardonic narrator… There is… a certain edgy propulsion to the story, and the reveal of what is really going on in the bowels of Sansom’s research centre is deliciously horrible and deftly understated.’ Guardian
‘Part love story, part race against time to beat the baddies, Fernyhough can certainly write.’ Daily Mail
‘The plot, which flies past at genuine ‘page turner’ pace, involves a race to map the (fictional) Lorenzo Circuit, ‘the deep root-system of the self… the basis of memory, emotion and consciousness in the human brain’… Fernyhough may have ended my face-off with fiction, as I realised… that [science and fiction] need not be mutually exclusive. We can, of course, learn about our world while our head’s in an imagined one, just as our experience informs our writing. ‘Stories are truth’, he writes. ‘Stories are the truest truth’. I’m grateful for the siren warnings from the storytelling machine that is Charles Fernyhough.’ The Psychologist
‘It’s rare these days to read a writer who cares about ideas in the way that the great nineteenth-century novelists did. With A Box of Birds, Charles Fernyhough creates a thrilling plot and wonderfully constructed characters who are never overwhelmed by the twists of the story. The clash of philosophies at the heart of the novel—in which the certainties of neuroscience are unpicked by the mind’s need to tell a coherent story—is presented in such plausible terms that I should think any reader would instinctively align themselves and then be challenged by the other side of the question. This is both a serious novel and a great read.’ Sara Maitland
‘We have been waiting a long time for Charles Fernyhough to follow up his fine first novel The Auctioneer, and he has now done it in brilliant style with A Box Of Birds. Taking its title from Plato’s metaphor for memory, this is both a novel of ideas and a pacey thriller. The idea is a profound philosophical one: how can cells and chemicals produce our sense of consciousness? Fernyhough’s feisty heroine, neuroscientist Yvonne Churcher, takes us on a rollercoaster plot involving animal rights’ activists, lovers, geeks, entrepreneurs and a senile chimp. Exhilarating, thought-provoking and well worth the wait.’ Andrew Crumey