Birds and Loss

“His mother used to say the soul was a bird that lived in the nape of the neck. At night it flew out of the mouth, and when you woke it returned; and when you died, it flew away forever. The world outside the glass that night seemed entirely an abstraction, a dream. Here, in the drawing room, the living warmed their bones by the flame. Without, the dead were all looking in.”

An excerpt from Birds in Fall by Brad Kessler

A plane crashes off the coast of a small island. As the search for survivors surges, the victims’ relatives gather at an inn near the crash site to hope, wonder and come to terms with new loss and old memories.

In Birds of Fall author Brad Kessler turns a story of tragedy into a lighter beast. The characters despair and move numbly through their pain without crippling the reader’s emotional reality.

Instead, while wandering through their stories, you remain a protected observer; the palpable struggle, encapsulated in moments of beautiful description, is softened.

Because I love stories that sing off the page, lift and strike – smoke becoming stone – stories that grab me by the hair, the pain so real I can’t focus my life until I’ve paddled through the next 20 pages, I found Birds in Fall to be lacking. It remained distanced from the gravity of a real tragedy. But, maybe surprisingly, I still enjoyed reading it.

The story breezes through a semi-predictable arc (which I’d like to think was the author’s intention, a way of soothing the anxious aftermath of a crash? Maybe that was my hopeful projection of it). I didn’t fear or feel uncomfortable at anytime during the book. I wasn’t gripping the pages at midnight, unable to sleep, or tearing up near the end because I simply couldn’t leave these characters to an unknown-to-me fate, and it hasn’t become a must-read to quote and pass on to my friends.

Actually, when people asked me what I was reading this week, I kind of shrugged noncommittally, “A library book. It’s nice.”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t gasping to tell them.

But — it was pretty. Not beautiful, not sexy, not striking, but tender and gracious. Egged on by the story of Ana, an ornithologist who loses her husband, the story pulses with a delicate metaphor between the scientific study of migrating fowl and the instinctual patterns of human loss.

Still cautious of being heavy-handed, Kessler softly links the gruelling journey of birds to battling one’s way through grief. It’s a good one; the author “puts a bird in it,” and it works wonderfully. The first experience of grief, like the first journey south, Kessler suggests, is the most harrowing. But by exercising the muscles of our intuition, we are better able to find our way forwards, each time made easier. And while travelling through stormy weather is difficult, bringing those individual experiences together will help more of us make it through.

While I didn’t feel completely grounded in this story, I appreciate the tremendous heft of life it viewed from above; and within a squall, sometimes it’s the broader perspective that helps pull us through.

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