A friend lent me this book and I recognised immediately that it was a Europa Editions book, but not one I had heard of Europa Editions are one of my favourite publishers, they always have something that will appeal to me in their annual catalog. Many of the books are of Italian origin, or translated from other European languages.
A Catalog of Birds however, is written by the American author Laura Harrington.
Some of the books Europa Editions have published that I’ve read and reviewed here are, that you might enjoy, are the Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, starting with My Brilliant Friend and Frantumaglia, A Writer’s Journey, also by her The Days of Abandonment, the novel that is like its twin, Ties by Domenico Starnone; the World Noir title The Bastards of Pizzofalcone by Maurizio de Giovanni, Eva Sleeps by Francesca Malendri, The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroubi, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng and a new one that I have to read, which I’m really looking forward to, the French translation of Disoriental by Negar Djvadi.
A Catalog of Birds centres around a small 1970’s community in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, an area known for its series of long, thin, deep glacial lakes, it’s high gorges and dramatic waterfalls (and today its wineries).
Despite its natural beauty, this community is affected, as every other is and has been, by the shadow of war, of young men returning from Vietnam, lost dreams, a lost innocence.
The Flynn family’s son Billy has just returned, his body covered in burns, his right arm mangled, his hearing disturbed, after surviving a helicopter crash. The day after his return, his girlfriend Megan disappears.
Megan hesitates before boarding the bus to a place she’s never been before, hesitates before accepting a ride with a stranger. Thinking of Billy, that horrible hospital, all those wrecked young men and boys. She’s in flight, in flight from it all.
Remembers Billy’s last leave. A year of training under his belt. Three days at home before shipping out to Vietnam. Both of them in the grip of something: anticipation, fear, the unknown.
Billy’s field journal
The early pages from Vietnam alternate between scenes on the base: insects, common birds, sketches of his crew; and pages where he was off the base: acres of green, rice paddies, water buffalo. There are birds Nell has never seen before, drawn as only Billy can; each of them so individual, so full of personality you expect them to sing.
Black crowned night heron
There are fewer entries as the months drag on: a lone man crouched in tall burning grass, the shadow of a gunship passing over him, mountaintops ringed with clouds, ravines dark as the far side of the moon. These give way to drawings of the dead, downed helicopters, the last pages full of fire. Page after page: birds, trees, fields, burning.
Billy and his younger sister Nell have a close relationship, they know the surrounding lakes and forests like no other, they are connected to their natural environment in a way that even a highly educated academic specialising in the birds they know so well, had much to learn from.
Esme, 45 yr old ornithologist
Over the years Billy taught Esme a new way to listen, showed her how birds organise their communication, how to read body language between pairs, the meaning of their back-and-forth chat, how they check in on each other, the various warning sounds.
Billy’s journals are the thread of their childhood; his coming into his own as a naturalist, as an artist, developing his eye, his hand, his deepening identification with birds. From sketching in the field to detailed study, to painting the portraits he began to make the year before he shipped out.
Both Billy’s father Jack and his best friend Harlow, also bear and have borne the hardship of the return from war, they cope in their own way, as has Marion, Jack’s wife, waiting out the long semi-recovery, which in the early years, tests every man who dares survive war’s dark parasitic claim to their sanity. Now they must watch Billy go through the same test.
On good days he fell right into a rhythm of forgetting, found a girl not quite so dedicated to her antiwar stance she’d forego sleeping with a vet, and then drank enough to numb his nightmares. On bad days he was rendered speechless by fury and confusion. He grew his hair long. Learned never to talk about the war.
“Did you have nightmares Dad?”
The minutes tick long.
“You can’t leave it. You just end up carrying it.” He takes another swallow of Scotch. “I don’t know how to help him,” he admits. Shamed to hear the words out loud.
“Just love him.”
He looks at his daughter again, wishes it were enough, wishes he didn’t know the limits of love and hope, how little, really, can be covered over, hidden away, made whole.
Nell is too young to remember her father’s return from war, her memories are of the good times she had with her brother and his friend, of the strange feelings that engulf her, of the terrible knowledge of things she knows about Megan, of a desperation to protect her brother, to save his drawings, to bring him back to where he was, when they would go out on the lake, sit in among the trees, listen to birdsong, recognise their warnings, to just be.
Something lifts in Nell, hearing her brother laugh like that.
She looks at Harlow’s hands. They’re square and strong, the Coke bottle almost disappears in them. Thinks of picking apples in the Alsop orchard. The boys thought ladders were for sissies. Determined to keep up with them, she tried to find a handhold and a foothold to get into the tree. Harlow reached down, grabbed her forearm, pulled her up beside him.
That sudden wash of closeness as she found her footing and her balance. The smell of his skin, touching him. The sun low in the sky, the trees heavy with fruit. Hidden from the others. Light-headed. Vibrating with a feeling she didn’t know how to describe. Twelve years old. How she had wanted to kiss him.
Still does. But it doesn’t look like that’s ever gonna happen again.
He flirts with driving so fast she’ll be scared into telling him the truth, a truth he probably already knows. Feels her fear then, takes his foot off the gas.
How stupid they were; believing nothing could touch them, catch them, destroy what they had. Willfully blind to the facts, to the birds and the bees, for godsakes. Charmed, meant to be, summer of love, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.
He looks at Nell, thinks of how he kept Harlow away from her, but still took what he wanted with Megan. With everything. Grabbed what he wanted with both hands. Flying. The war. Intoxicated in the air. Every time he walked across the tarmac, climbed into the bird. All he’d ever wanted. More awake, more alert, more alive than anytime before or since.
This is a thought-provoking novel about the effect of war on those who were involved in it, on those closest to them, who try to nurture them through the aftermath, about the inclination to not ever to want to speak about what happened, and how that and the changed behaviour trauma causes, affects everyone.
I hope the selection of quotes above provides something of the essence of the novel, it seemed to me that they resonate more than anything I could contribute by way of the review. It is a touching novel that captures the beauty of a shared childhood, the complicity of adolescent friendship and loyalty, the struggle of families, of how they split and come back together, of love, of loss, of the difficulty of practicing forgiveness.