The Book of Dead Birds
by Gayle Brandeis
Published by HarperCollins
256 pages, 2003
Reviewed by David Abrams
Let's face it, none of us can ever fathom our parents. They are walking question marks and we are left to wonder at their dim prehistory -- those years before our birth, the faces and places of yellowed snapshots. Who are those young people staring back at the camera? What were their lives like before we came along in disruption?
For Ava Sing Lo, these are the questions that peck at her soul as she struggles to solve the riddle of her mother in Gayle Brandeis' debut novel, The Book of Dead Birds. Her mother is close-mouthed, her motives unfathomable, her emotions kept tightly bound. Determining her mother's heart ultimately means discovering her own as well.
I wonder what my mother's heart really looks like. I imagine a wrinkled leather pouch, something mummified and dry; she could tear it into strips and serve it as jerky -- chewy, saturated with salt.
As the novel opens, Ava has just finished her graduate studies in communication at San Diego State, though she's a failure when it comes to communicating with her Korean mother. Helen Sing Lo is a former prostitute to black GIs in the 1960s (one of those anonymous soldiers was Ava's father) who now carves and paints eggshells to earn a living, only revealing herself through impromptu singing (while Ava plays the drums). Through her plaintive songs, something in Helen's soul takes wing and Ava records it all in a journal.
As you can expect, birds (both dead and living) are central to the book. Near the beginning of her story, Ava tells us, "I am a bird killer. The killer of my mother's birds. An accidental killer, but a killer nonetheless."
For years, her mother's pet cockatiels and parrots have fallen victim to Ava's blundering and her mother keeps her own journal, a Book of Dead Birds, complete with feathers and eggshells as evidence. Pleasing her mother is somehow tied to her being able to stop killing birds. Ava gets her shot at redemption when she joins a group of environmentalists at the Salton Sea, an inland lake eighty miles north of San Diego where a mysterious botulism has recently killed more than 3000 birds, including brown pelicans.
As Ava works to save the endangered species, she also learns more about herself once she's out from under her mother's wing, so to speak. Ava's narration is interspersed with dreams, Helen's dead-bird obituaries, excerpts from John James Audubon's notebooks and, most important, the mother's story -- first as a prostitute, then as a bride abandoned by her white husband in America after she gives birth to a black child.
My mother named me Ava because she liked how the English letters looked -- the big A a beak pointed upward, the v a sharp slash of wings, the small a round and flat as a parrot's eye. She chose the name even before she knew it had anything to do with birds -- the letters spoke to her with their own hollow bones. Her family name was Song, but she choose Sing for us because ... it sounded more active, like something that is happening, something alive in the throat ... The "Lo" ... comes from my mother's mishearing of the song "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." She had seen an American movie where a man in prison sang that song, and she thought he was saying "sing low," his voice was so low, so gravelly and dark. That's how she felt twenty-five years ago, she's told me -- low and gravelly and dark right after I was born. That's how I still make her feel, it seems, again and again and again, awkward as the "l" sound in her mouth.
Poetry abounds on every page and graces every sentence. Starting with Ava's ornithological name and continuing through the grim details of the Salton Sea bird rescue, Brandeis writes confidently and lyrically without ever turning to treacle. She cares as passionately about her character's parent-puzzle quest as Ava does about redeeming herself in her mother's eyes by saving at least one bird's life. Though pelicans continue to die at the Salton Sea, the daughter eventually learns how to listen to her mother's heart -- which is not tough as jerky after all -- as well as her own. The Book of Dead Birds captures the way we communicate with our parents and children, then uncages the heart to sing.
Brandeis has a poet's ear for the music of language. Her remarkable first novel is deceptively simple and quick to read ... but the characters and their fledgling flights of the heart stay with readers long after the book is closed and set aside. | October 2003
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.