Review: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings’ is a modern classic, and deservedly so. You’ll likely see it on any half-decent ‘books to read before you kick it’ list and that’s partly the reason I chose to read it. It was recommended to me by my rather wise old father and immediately it looked like a book I’d enjoy. Favouring other influential books such as Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Burgess’ oddly fascinating ‘A Clockwork Orange’ I assumed this would fall in nicely with my attempt at broadening my literary horizon.

Despite technically being an autobiography, the story reads just like a piece of fiction, including literary techniques and thematic developments. It tells the story of a young girl not only growing into a woman but dealing with racism and other traumatic events along the way.

This book is everything you’d expect; eye-opening with subtle yet heartbreaking moments told through the eyes of a child. However what I wasn’t expecting were the naïvely endearing moments of humour, such as when Maya believes she may be “growing into a lesbian”. By including such details Angelou creates a level of sympathy and emotional response you wouldn’t otherwise achieve. Essentially she becomes a hero in the most humble way, in a story where everything is pitted against her. Watching her grow from a child, lost at 3 years old to a woman at only 16, the reader is encouraged to admire her not only for the mere act of survival and resilience but her perseverance in areas where others would succeed so easily.

There are some deeply upsetting themes which are handled with the upmost care, but what’s so clever about these events is where the real tragedy comes from. It doesn’t come from the awful acts themselves but more so from how the child responds. The impact of these relationships on an impressionable young girl, too quickly becoming a woman, is earth shattering.

I won’t include any spoilers but I will say that my view of the ending has already changed at least twice and I only finished the book a few hours ago. Anyone who knows me is aware of my intolerance of inconclusive endings, whether that be in books or films. However, after some reflection I’m beginning to appreciate it a little more. Of course the book would have much less impact if it spanned over the entirety of Maya Angelou’s life, childhood would become a small and insignificant segment of her life.

To say I’ve enjoyed this book would be an understatement. It’s challenged me, entertained me, perplexed me and made me cry on public transport but I’d do it all again. This book may be timeless but it’s also timely given current events in the US. Certainly worth a read even just to cross it off your list, if nothing else.

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” 

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