In our society, discussions on death and mourning are avoided, and if avoidance is not an option, good-intentioned platitudes are delivered with small arm pats and instructions to call if anything is needed. Brad Kessler in his novel “Birds in Fall” circumvents the taboo of looking at loss directly and drops us into the pain, confusion and uncertainty that we all, at sometime in our lives, will experience.
Brad Kessler’s Birds in Fall is the interlinked stories of family members that are left behind when a flight from New York to Amsterdam crashes into the sea near Trachis, a small island in Nova Scotia. Russell, an ornithologist, is a passenger on the flight and as it plummets into the ocean, he considers, “Did I feel it then, the beginning of this pilgrimage, from air to thinner air, from body to body, before the impact? Was it then or after or in between, before the seat belts locked our pelvises in place and unleashed the rest of us.”
Through each character’s story, nestled within the combined anguish of loss, the essence of transcendence and the beauty of timeless interconnection evolves.
Kevin Gearns, with his partner Douglas, runs Trachis Inn on the island. He opens the inn for the families who lost people in the tragedy and immerses himself in the caretaking of those whose lives will never be the same. His desire to feed and house the mourners allows him to feel both removed and immersed in the catastrophe. The impact of the accident is far-reaching on the island, which we see when Kevin disposes of the meal he had planned to make the night the plane went down. “It didn’t matter that he’d bought the fish the day before. For the near future—perhaps forever—anything that came out of that ocean was definitely off limits.”
Days after the plane goes down, family members arrive at the inn from around the world to wait for news on their loved ones. Claartija deJong who lost both parents arrives from the Netherlands with her brother; the Liang’s come from Taiwan to retrieve the soul of their daughter, Tien; Mr. Raskolov from Bulgaria and Parviz Mansoor both lost family; and Ana, Russell’s wife, also an ornithologist, waits for news on her husband.
Through the lens of grief, Kessler shows the shock of unexpected death and the human desire for those loved and lost to reside in peace. Diana Olmstead’s sister died on the flight and as she fingers prayer beads next to the sea, she thinks, “It was important particularly at that moment, just as it was when she’d first learned the news, to be calm and focused, to be free from negative thoughts. For this was the delicate time, the narrow time, the intermediate state, when the souls of the dead needed help.”
In Birds in Fall, Kessler uses the life of birds in parallel to the grief of the survivors. When asked what happens to birds in the eye of a storm, Ana explains, “The problem is, the birds in the eye really are trapped there. They can’t fly through the wall of the eye, and they can’t land on the water. So they have to keep flying for hours or days, and eventually, they exhaust themselves and drop into the ocean. The ones who get caught in the wall of the eye itself are carried upward on spiraling winds.”
“How is a story like a bird? It keeps us aloft. It flies. It goes from one place and lands at another, seemingly at random. But its movements are carefully choreographed, and if you look closely, you’ll know exactly where it will next perch.” Brad Kessler has created a beautiful monument to mourning. He has delved into the tapestry of tradition to show how, within the folds of sorrow, connections can be born and hope renewed.