Set in the Norwegian countryside over the course of one summer, The Birds tells the story of forty-year-old Mattis, who has mental disabilities and lives in a small house near a lake with his sister Hege, who ekes out a modest living knitting sweaters. From time to time Hege encourages her brother to find work to ease their financial burdens, but Mattis's attempts to work at the surrounding farms always end in failure and disgrace. Mattis is keenly aware of the distance between himself and the world around him, which often feels hostile; the villagers call him Simple Simon.
Profoundly sensitive to his surroundings, Mattis spends much of his time in the forest, reading its signs and symbols: A woodcock begins a daily flight over their house, a beautiful bird is waiting for him on the path one day when he returns from the store, and one afternoon lighting strikes one of the two withered aspen trees outside the house -- trees known in the village as "Mattis-and-Hege."
When Mattis decides to employ himself as a ferryman, the only passenger he manages to bring across the lake is a lumberjack, Jørgen. When Jørgen and Hege become lovers, Mattis finds he cannot adjust to this new situation. Wholly reliant on Hege and terrified of losing her, he clings to the familiar and does everything in his power to make Jørgen leave. Simultaneously, he struggles to find a place for himself in a world that does not seem to want him.
With spare simplicity, Vesaas's straightforward prose subtly reveals Mattis's perspective and readers will find themselves shifting irrevocably from observers of his experience to participants in it. Written by one of Norway's most celebrated and beloved authors, The Birds is a deeply nuanced examination of identity and responsibility, with abundant narrative suspense and hauntingly beautiful writing besides.