“A Cat­a­log of Birds” is a soar­ing new novel about love and loss

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE -

It’s 1970 in Laura Har­ring­ton’s bril­liant new novel, “A Cat­a­log of Birds,” and Nell Flynn is about to grad­u­ate from high school. A young sci­en­tist on her way to Cor­nell, Nell has her whole life in front of her. She’s in love with her brother’s best friend and lives with her par­ents in a small town on one of New York’s Fin­ger Lakes.

At first glance, this may seem like an or­di­nary com­ing-of-age story, but one of the great plea­sures of read­ing “A Cat­a­log of Birds” is that it’s as im­pos­si­ble to cat­e­go­rize as it is to put down. The smooth path of Nell’s life is in­ter­rupted by tragedy. Her best friend, Megan, dis­ap­pears mys­te­ri­ously, and her beloved brother, Billy, comes home from Viet­nam se­verely in­jured. At once, the novel be­comes a sear­ing war story and a page-turn­ing thriller.

An award-win­ning play­wright, Har­ring­ton cap­tures her char­ac­ters with quick strokes and sharp di­a­logue, cre­at­ing a com­plex and richly told tale. She evokes Billy’s suf­fer­ing in war, ex­plor­ing the con­se­quences of his trauma on Nell, and she de­scribes the fear and sor­row that grips the en­tire town when Megan van­ishes.

In the midst of th­ese dra­mas, Har­ring­ton al­lows Nell’s life to un­fold in its quiet or­di­nar­i­ness, a poignant coun­ter­point to the tra­vails of her brother and the mys­tery of Megan’s dis­ap­pear­ance. Thus, Nell won­ders if the boy she likes will ever kiss her, and in the next scene Billy to­tals his car. Nell feeds Megan’s ponies and then de­tec­tives ap­pear, ask­ing for more information about Megan. Nell helps her mother make din­ner, and Billy goes to the lo­cal bar and drinks un­til he’s un­con­scious.

The novel’s ti­tle comes from Billy and Nell’s pas­sion for birds and the nat­u­ral world. Be­fore leav­ing for Viet­nam, Billy spends hours bird­watch­ing with his sis­ter. To­gether, they track the his­tory of the In­di­ans who once lived on the lake, mem­o­rably dis­cov­er­ing the stumps of ap­ple trees planted by the Seneca.

By the time he’s 12, Billy can draw birds with such pre­ci­sion that his work at­tracts the at­ten­tion of a Cor­nell or­nithol­o­gist. Billy teaches his younger sis­ter ev­ery­thing he knows, in­clud­ing how to lis­ten to and ob­serve na­ture. But when Billy re­turns from war, his in­juries make it im­pos­si­ble for him to draw, and his hear­ing is so im­paired that he can no longer iden­tify birds. His suf­fer­ing is com­pounded by the loss of Megan.

Nell does her best to help Billy heal but dis­cov­ers that there are lim­its to how much she can do. The rav­ages of war are too much to heal. If this sounds sad, it is, but the novel is leav­ened with hope. To­ward the story’s end, Nell imag­ines the world through the eyes of a black­bird: “From high above she would see the can­dles shin­ing on the ta­ble, the smoke from the fire curl­ing into the sky. … Higher still and she would see all ten of the Fin­ger Lakes, sur­rounded by thou­sands of acres of for­est and farm­land.”

That bird’s eye view be­comes the bless­ing of this ex­tra­or­di­nary book. Har­ring­ton asks us to fly from de­spair to grace, from loss to faith, to see as a bird sees. Only then can we re­turn to our orig­i­nal in­no­cence, re­mem­ber the many beau­ties of this painful, joy­ful and mys­te­ri­ous world.

By Laura Har­ring­ton (Europa) By Char­lotte Gor­don

FIC­TION A Cat­a­log of Birds

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.