Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman.
Not everyone could live with tumbleweeds of dog hair on the steps, the night sounds of feral cats exploring the house, the raccoon rattling his cage door at two in the morning. The retrievers came to me, stuck their cold noses on my cheek. Aged and humbled, they looked like orangutans, their cinnamon-and-honey-colored coats matted, their eyes framed in white. When Gray left, the cats came out of hiding long enough for me to name them. - from Every Vein a Tooth, page 168 -
Megan Mayhew Bergman's amazing debut collection of short stories captured me first with its alluring book jacket, and then delighted me with its honest, funny and poignant narratives. The collection includes twelve stories which intertwine the characters' lives with that of pets, wild animals, and the natural world. An animal lover for my entire life, I saw myself in some of the characters who find comfort in their connection with the furred and feathered beings in their lives, and find that animals have valuable lessons to teach. These characters see their lives firmly enmeshed in the natural world around them, sometimes with a surprising twist or unexpected outcome.
In Housewifely Arts, a woman mourns the death of her mother and decides to take a road trip with her young son to find her mother's pet bird -- a bird who could remarkably imitate her mother's voice. The story reveals the ambivalent feelings between mother and daughter, and the bittersweet ache of wanting something that is unattainable.
I haven't told Ike that we're driving to a small roadside zoo outside of Myrtle Beach so that I can hear my mother's voice call from the beak of a thirty-six-year-old African gray parrot, a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me. - from Housewifely Arts, page 3 -
Most of Bergman's stories have a common theme -- that of the sometimes uneasy relationship between parents and children, and the longing for unconditional love. In The Cow That Milked Herself, a pregnant woman longs for her vet tech husband, Wood, to turn his caring from the animals he treats to her. In the animal world, sheep drop their lambs on mud-covered floors, dogs fall ill with bladder infections, and jaguars in captivity are known to devour their own cubs -- it is rough and sometimes sad, and scary ... and there is something there which reminds us of the tenuous threads which bind one life to another.
The title story, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, and the next to the last story, The Artificial Heart, take a look at the relationship between daughters and fathers. In both stories, the fathers are aged and their health is declining. The daughters are the caregivers, strong women whose hearts are aching with memories of who their fathers used to be. In Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a theme park which runs birding trips becomes the backdrop for the spooling out of a story about the harsh reality of growing older; in The Artificial Heart, the story takes place many years in the future as the earth's oceans have become poisoned. The protagonist's father in this last narrative has dementia and has a newly minted relationship with an older woman whose diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease is robbing her of memory. Bergman skillfully weaves humor into a story about loss.
My father was ninety-one and senile but insisted he could still look for love. The dating service paired him with Susan -- an octogenarian feminist who listed skee ball and container gardening as her primary hobbies. She was in the early stages of Alzheimer's and chewed nicotine gum when she talked. They'd been dating a month and when he was lucid, Dad was smitten. - from The Artificial Heart, page 185 -
Bergman also reminds us that nature can be a dangerous and fearful thing, full of the unexpected and mysterious. In Saving Face, a young veterinarian's momentary lapse while removing porcupine quills from a wolf hybrid, results in her life being forever changed.
She'd treated the dog with tenderness. What did I expect in return? she wondered. Gratitude?
There are no promises, no obligations between living things, she thought. Not even humans. Just raw need hidden by a game of make-believe. - from Saving Face, page 70 -
Likewise, in Night Hunting, a teenager is terrified when her mother's cancer returns. The two of them have moved to Vermont and listen to the coyotes at night. One particular coyote, a female with pups, is becoming more confident and dangerous. She represents the relentlessness of nature, the grim reality of the perils we face in our lives.
The best predators, I realized, had no sympathy. - from Night Hunting, page 156 -
Taken as a whole, Bergman's collection of stories is a stunning and beautifully wrought meditation on how our lives are connected to each other and to the world around us. Bergman writes with a finely honed knowledge of the animal world, and includes the humor, the menace, the poignancy, and the love which draw people to animals. She reminds us of how we cannot detach ourselves from our biology or from the world in which we live.
This is an exquisite collection from a fresh, new voice in fiction.
- Quality of Writing: Five stars
- Characters: Five stars
Overall Rating: Five stars out of five.
FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".