It’s 1970 in Laura Harrington’s brilliant new novel, “A Catalog of Birds,” and Nell Flynn is about to graduate from high school. A young scientist on her way to Cornell, Nell has her whole life in front of her. She’s in love with her brother’s best friend and lives with her parents in a small town on one of New York’s Finger Lakes.
At first glance, this may seem like an ordinary coming-of-age story, but one of the great pleasures of reading “A Catalog of Birds” is that it’s as impossible to categorize as it is to put down. The smooth path of Nell’s life is interrupted by tragedy. Her best friend, Megan, disappears mysteriously, and her beloved brother, Billy, comes home from Vietnam severely injured. At once, the novel becomes a searing war story and a page-turning thriller.
An award-winning playwright, Harrington captures her characters with quick strokes and sharp dialogue, creating a complex and richly told tale. She evokes Billy’s suffering in war, exploring the consequences of his trauma on Nell, and she describes the fear and sorrow that grips the entire town when Megan vanishes.
In the midst of these dramas, Harrington allows Nell’s life to unfold in its quiet ordinariness, a poignant counterpoint to the travails of her brother and the mystery of Megan’s disappearance. Thus, Nell wonders if the boy she likes will ever kiss her, and in the next scene Billy totals his car. Nell feeds Megan’s ponies and then detectives appear, asking for more information about Megan. Nell helps her mother make dinner, and Billy goes to the local bar and drinks until he’s unconscious.
The novel’s title comes from Billy and Nell’s passion for birds and the natural world. Before leaving for Vietnam, Billy spends hours birdwatching with his sister. Together, they track the history of the Indians who once lived on the lake, memorably discovering the stumps of apple trees planted by the Seneca.
By the time he’s 12, Billy can draw birds with such precision that his work attracts the attention of a Cornell ornithologist. Billy teaches his younger sister everything he knows, including how to listen to and observe nature. But when Billy returns from war, his injuries make it impossible for him to draw, and his hearing is so impaired that he can no longer identify birds. His suffering is compounded by the loss of Megan.
Nell does her best to help Billy heal but discovers that there are limits to how much she can do. The ravages of war are too much to heal. If this sounds sad, it is, but the novel is leavened with hope. Toward the story’s end, Nell imagines the world through the eyes of a blackbird: “From high above she would see the candles shining on the table, the smoke from the fire curling into the sky. . . . Higher still and she would see all ten of the Finger Lakes, surrounded by thousands of acres of forest and farmland.”
That bird’s-eye view becomes the blessing of this extraordinary book. Harrington asks us to fly from despair to grace, from loss to faith, to see as a bird sees. Only then can we return to our original innocence, remember the many beauties of this painful, joyful and mysterious world.
Charlotte Gordon, a professor of humanities at Endicott College, is the author, most recently, of “Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley.”
By Laura Harrington
Europa. 224 pp. $16