September 4, 2006

Birds in Fall

Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 9/2/06
Rating: A (9/10 Terrific)

Publisher Comments:

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.


  1. Eeewwwwwwwee, this is good to know. I read another review a while back with the same positive reaction. Oh boy...another one to add onto the TBR List!

    I have a new picture, but I'm the same Joy! :)

  2. Anonymous6:29 PM

    Another book to add to my must read list. I read Ann Patchett's Bel Canto last year and absolutely adored it. Thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Sounds really good. I also loved Bel Canto so with an endorsement like that, I'm adding it to my wishlist! :)

  4. Anonymous7:19 AM

    I hadn't heard of this book. Sounds interesting. And, I think I'm the last person who hasn't read Bel Canto! :)

  5. I loved Bel Canto; I'll have to tell my book club about this one because everyone raved about Bel Canto. I love your "text-to-text" connection, as we say in my class.

  6. Anonymous6:31 AM

    I loved this book. Finally, someone else who has read it! I'm so glad you enjoyed it, too.

  7. Anonymous6:32 AM

    Oh, and iliana, you're not the only one who hasn't read Bel Canto! I have a copy of it sitting on my 'to read' shelf, heh.

  8. Thanks for all the nice comments. And, thanks, Lesley [the other Lesley :)] for the link to your review. Nice to see that someone else shares my feelings about the book. Now, y'all need to be honest when you review the book. You won't hurt my feelings if you don't like it. Really. :)

  9. I had Bel Canto sitting on my bookshelf for the longest time and a couple of months ago, when my daughter's school was having their annual book sale, I donated the book to them (without ever having read it!) Arrrgggh!

    Thanks for the really nice review, Les. It sounds like a good read.

  10. Thanks, Lotus. Sorry to hear you gave your copy of Bel Canto away. I'd say maybe get it from the library, but imho it's a keeper. It was our city's One Read selection a year or so ago and I'll bet our upcoming library sale has dozens available. Perhaps I could snag a copy for you?

  11. This looks like a must-read to add to the list. I already have Bel Canto on my list but haven't got to it yet. Thanks for the great review.

  12. Framed - I hope you enjoy both Birds in Fall AND Bel Canto! Thanks for the nice comment.

  13. Anonymous1:42 AM

    I loved the accessible emotion of this book. Definitely in my top ten. Glad I discovered your site, I'll be back. On my blog, I have compiled all the books I read last year. Quantum Leaps

  14. Sonja - Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm surprised I haven't seen more mention of this book on other bloggers' Top Ten lists. It's one I'll continue to think about for years to come, I believe.

  15. Oh, Les, you have captured the essence of this book so well. I wish I could express myself eloquently. I actually finished this book and tried repeatedly to write a review I felt satisfied with. The book was so good and I felt at a loss to express that. Finally, I just gave up and posted my best shot.

    One of these days I'm going to study about what to look for when reading a book. I did watch for repeating motifs to provide meaning and that enrich the reading experience. Hopefully, as I continue to write how I feel about books I will find the correct words easier and write better.

    All that to say - I loved your review.

  16. Booklogged - Aw, gee, shucks. Thanks. ;) I don't know about you, but sometimes even a great book is difficult to review. This one just seemed to write itself. I tried to re-write my review for Bel Canto and finally gave up and posted what I had in journal notes.


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