When I read non-speculative fiction, I like for there to be a Premise; for the book to be what they call high-concept. Like a girl was raised side by side with an ape, and here is what her life is like as an adult. Or a man’s personality completely changes following a traumatic brain injury. Or a British soldier assumes a secret identity to find his friend’s murderers. For me to pick up a book with a premise as quiet as Byrd‘s–a woman in her early thirties falls pregnant and gives the baby up for adoption–someone usually has to have raved about it to me. In this case, it was the marvelous Priscilla of The Evening Reader. Here’s what she said:
Even now if I think about certain scenes in the novel, it brings tears to my eyes. And the beauty of it is that nothing in this novel is overworked or melodramatic. It’s the hush, the lonely hopefulness, the complexity of love and disappointment that drive the narratives of everyday life that really shine here.
So when the author’s publicist contacted me to offer me a review copy, I was delighted and said yes at once. Addie meets Roland when they’re just kids, and they have that kind of relationship that if Addie was one of your friends, you’d urge her to lay off spending time with that guy and find someone who’s worthwhile. (Addie’s friends do just this, in fact.) Roland tells her that she’s the only one who really understands him; she sits on an amp and listens to him play music. Many years later, discontented with her life, Addie goes to stay with him in Los Angeles, where he’s doing drugs and trying to make it as a musician. She gets pregnant; her attempt at an abortion doesn’t work; and in absolute secret, she has the baby and gives it up for adoption.
Byrd is about coming to terms with what you have to give. When Addie falls pregnant, she knows from the first that she doesn’t have motherhood to give, and Roland doesn’t have fatherhood either; and neither of them can give the permanent tangling together of their lives that mutual parenting would require. Perhaps they want to be able to give some of these things, but they just don’t have them (then).
Kim Church, the author, doesn’t make value judgments about the things her characters are doing. She’s just telling a story, and her writing has a wonderful, spare specificity that I loved. She resists almost completely the urge to throw characters into conflict with each other. Instead she just gives us their actions, at different points in their lives, and the reader is left to decide whether they could have been better and done more. It’s a generous way of writing, to be calm about the worst of her characters and calm about their best.
He pulls her closer and presses her head into his shoulder. Her face soaks his shirt. He doesn’t care. He isn’t thinking about himself, not yet. It’s too soon; he doesn’t need to think that far ahead. “It’s okay,” he says, keeping his voice deep and even. “Just tell me what you want me to do. Tell me, and I’ll do it.” He has no idea what this means, for himself or for her, but he likes the sound of it. Solid, convincing, strong. Stronger than he has ever been.
It’s my opinion that most people, most of the time, are trying to be good, though they do not always succeed, and the world does not always cooperate. Byrd reflects that idea. The most clearly selfish and unkind decision Addie makes in the book allows a great deal of good to spring up in Roland’s life, and her most good decision brings him disaster. That she never finds out about any of it was possibly my favorite aspect of the book, and the thing that rang the most true.
Family drama sorts of fiction are not generally my thing, but I’m glad Priscilla recommended Byrd. It’s a beautifully quiet book with the kind of ending I like the best.