September 4, 2006
Birds in Fall
Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler
Finished on 9/2/06
Rating: A (9/10 Terrific)
One fall night off the coast of a remote island in Nova Scotia, an airplane plummets to the sea as an innkeeper watches from the shore. Miles away in New York City, ornithologist Ana Gathreaux works in a darkened room full of sparrows, testing their migratory instincts. Soon, Ana will be bound for Trachis Island, along with other relatives of victims who converge on the site of the tragedy.
As the search for survivors envelops the island, the mourning families gather at the inn, waiting for news of those they have lost. Here among strangers, and watched over by innkeeper Kevin Gearns, they form an unusual community, struggling for comfort and consolation. A Taiwanese couple sets out fruit for their daughter’s ghost. A Bulgarian man plays piano in the dark, sending the music to his lost wife, a cellist. Two Dutch teenagers, a brother and sister, rage against their parents’ death. An Iranian exile, mourning his niece, recites the Persian tales that carry the wisdom of centuries.
At the center of Birds in Fall lies Ana Gathreaux, whose story Brad Kessler tells with deep compassion: from her days in the field with her husband, observing and banding migratory birds, to her enduring grief and gradual reengagement with life.
Kessler’s knowledge of the natural world, music, and myth enriches every page of this hauntingly beautiful and moving novel about solitude, love, losing your way, and finding something like home.
In spite of the tragic subject matter, I fell in love with this quiet, entrancing story and Kessler’s beautifully evocative prose. I found myself reading very slowly, savoring each and every sentence as if they were rare stones, polished to perfection. I also found myself thinking of Ann Patchett’s group of hostages in her exquisite novel, Bel Canto, and how Kessler’s disparate group of family members was thrown together unexpectedly and abruptly just as were Patchett’s: They began as complete strangers, yet over the course of the days and weeks spent with one another, new relationships and friendships emerge in the shared despair and ultimate loss of hope; in the end, their lives were forever changed.
A couple of favorite passages (there were several others, but I hate to spoil their discovery for those wishing to read the book themselves):
She stood and unzippered her knapsack. She’d brought hardly any clothing – just a long print dress. She was still wearing the same sweater, the same Levi’s, the same bra she’d worn since leaving New York City. Somehow to change her clothes, to shower (even to eat) seemed a kind of betrayal, an acceptance; and if she could only ignore the exigencies of her own body, she might outwit the deadly hours that kept slipping past.
The pianist was clearly accomplished, that much was obvious to all. But what drew them at first to the library was the sound of the nocturne, what kept them there was the realization that the Bulgarian was the musician. He played with his eyes clamped tight, tears moistening his cheeks. And the others listened and wept too, openly or to themselves, for even though the Bulgarian hadn’t spoken to any of them the entire time on the island, it seemed that he was the most articulate, the most expressive of them all; that heretofore, his silence had meant more than all their accumulated words combined.
While certainly a somber read, Kessler deftly handles the poignant portrayal of grief with tender care, masterfully weaving scholarly details of ornithology and the migration of birds with the loss of human life in a plane crash. I came to care for the sympathetic characters, many of whom have lingered in my thoughts since finishing the novel. It would be false to end such a story with a happy ending. However, Kessler leaves his readers with a sense of peace, and perhaps with hope that a happy ending isn’t entirely implausible in the future of those left behind.