Birds in Fall By Brad Kessler
Death and survival are such strong themes in novels - and the healing power of love. There is not one of us untouched by grief and love - lost or found in our lives. Birds in Fall, the new novel by Brad Kessler, examines these themes in a profoundly moving story, beautifully written, that will enchant any reader. It is a book to read right through, as the reader is captivated by this story from the first page. The novel was inspired by the 1998 crash of SwissAir flight #111 off the coast of Nova Scotia. Brad Kessler changes the location to an island and tells the story of the victims of the crash and the survivors that gather at an inn, in the early days after the crash, as family members are brought to the scene of the crash.
The inn is owned by two gay men, Kevin and Douglas, who have moved there from New York City, seeking a simpler life away from the deaths of many of their friends in the early days of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
Kevin is the innkeeper and Douglas has been struggling to find his place in the community. In this small, isolated town they have not yet felt accepted, although the inn has been a success.
Kevin watches in horror as the plane, on fire, crashes into the ocean. Douglas immediately goes into town to help in the rescue attempts, and Kevin, on the verge of closing the inn for the season, allows it to stay open at the request of the Red Cross as accommodation for the families who arrive, hoping to find loved ones rescued, or at the worst to claim the bodies.
We meet the survivors as Kevin does, slowly getting to know them. Ana, an ornithologist from New York City, whose husband, Russell, dies in the crash. The days of waiting for survivors end (there are none) and the days of waiting for the bodies begin.
Each of the family members grieve in their different ways and Kevin tries to console them with elaborate meals and places appropriate books in their rooms. In the early days they are all living in profound shock amid the beautiful landscape of the island and the Atlantic coast.
A beauty damaged by the horror of so many deaths. The community is also in shock as they continue in the recovery of bodies - and the debris of body parts and personal items found in the water.
Brad Kessler was writing a novel about ornithologists in New York City - one picking up birds from the base of the twin towers, and about those who worked in the towers - before the terrorist attacks in September 2001. He felt that he could not continue to write a novel in which the towers still stood and had to re-examine the work he had done. In an interview he says, "I had a friend who died on that SwissAir flight. For months they searched the sea for him, until they found a fragment large enough for a positive identification. There was something terrible and haunting about that waiting period, that limbo state before they could officially pronounce him dead. A lot of people lived through that harrowing time. During it, everyone in Nova Scotia dropped what they were doing to help these families. That’s what partly inspired the novel, complete strangers assisting other strangers from around the world."
The landscape of the crash site is both beautiful and dangerous - a solace for the survivors, so completely away from their own homes in other parts of the world. It is Ana whose story becomes primary to the novel; her life in New York City, her work with birds. "How is a story like a bird?" the author asks, near the end. "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." This is a perfectly choreographed novel, one that bird watchers will especially love - and anyone else will find just as fascinating. And there are musicians, both victims and survivors drawn to music as solace in their grief.
This is an emotional novel, a story in the hands of a very fine writer - a novel that succeeds to enthrall the reader with both the words and the story itself. All of the characters are people we can relate to and care about as they each struggle to make sense of their lives after such shocking deaths. We follow their lives as the families arrive at the Inn, and as they leave after it is obvious that no one has survived the crash. Kevin and Douglas stay on, their lives forever changed. Kevin wonders if he will be able to continue to run the Inn, if he will ever enjoy his garden as he did before witnessing the crash - if he will ever be able to love the landscape as he once did. Douglas has found acceptance in the community but has become somewhat estranged from Kevin as they each try to find meaning in their lives at this time. All of the characters will stay with the reader long after they have finished reading- and been enriched by having read it.