Birds of a Lesser Paradise, by Megan Mayhew Bergman, is a beautifully-written and poignant debut collection of short stories. In it, the author explores our complicated relationship with love--love for an aging parent, love between a man and a woman, and love for a child. The main characters are all seekers exploring the sometimes dark recesses of their thoughts. The connecting thread between the stories is the relationship of the main characters to the animal world.
The first story is especially powerful. In it, a daughter drives many miles to see a parrot her mother once owned. Among its many vocal talents, it can mimic the mother's voice. Despite a relationship fraught with conflict, the daughter longs to hear that familiar voice again. She is mourning her mother's death all the more because so much was left unresolved.
I was determined not to fight back, she recalls of one of her visits. There was heat between us, long-standing arguments we couldn't remember but could still feel burning--should we sell Dad's tools? Should she go to the eye doctor? Who would care for her goddamned bird? Didn't I know how hard they'd worked to give me the right opportunities? Our disagreements were so sharp, so intense that we'd become afraid to engage with each other, and when we stopped fighting, we lost something. (P. 10)
This inability to communicate is a central theme in the story, and with it, the accompanying isolation. The African Gray becomes the object of her mother's affection-- the animal she speaks softly to, loves and holds dear. We know from the beginning that this bird will ultimately be abandoned, that loss is part of the human condition, and that expression of our true feelings often goes unsaid to those closest to us.
The first story sets the tone for the 11 others. They are all exquisitely sad, yet life affirming. The central characters are not only quirky (as are the animals), but are strong and independent. They are women who know what they want and have made sacrifices accordingly. Yet they accept that death is a real part of life, and that life itself presents hard choices. Ultimately, when the narrator in "The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock" cannot pay for surgery on her dog, understanding that the medical bills of her husband and baby come first, she does her best to comfort him and give him an easy death. But her dog finds the strength to chase down a bear that threatens his owners. He goes out victorious.
There is no need to explain to our daughter the death of her first dog, she concludes. Poppy, better than any of us, understands the urge to have what you must have. She can still wring what she wants from the world. It has listened to her cries and delivered. She still trusts the raw pull of desire. (p. 221)
Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a deeply moving collection of short stories, reminiscent of the work of Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, Lorrie Moore and Lauren Groff. Although Megan Bergman's short stories have appeared separately, this is her first published collection. It is a wonderful beginning for this talented, young author and a gift to all who read her.
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