On “Byrd” by Kim Church
Book review by PT Butler
Kim Church’s novel Byrd was long-listed for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. It is the story of Addie Lockwood from small-town North Carolina who gives up her only child for adoption without telling the father. Addie is not a young woman when she does this; she is in her thirties. Her relationship with the father is more of a friendship on his part, unrequited love on her part. Addie writes letters to her son, Byrd.
It is these letters that endure us to Addie. That and the way Church draws the reader in to the lives of her characters. She does switch voices; sometimes we hear from Roland (the father), sometimes from Addie, sometimes from some of the other more minor characters but the switches enhance the narrative and never detract.
Church has a good sense of humor that she strategically employs throughout the novel, keeping the story light and refreshing when it is at times, poignant. She has a good eye for detail: “When Roland opens the sofa bed there is a smell like salted cashews. The smell of sex.” Wherever the characters find themselves: Reno, North Carolina, Venice Beach, Church takes us there—we can see, smell, taste, understand the place. Church also has a keen sense of pacing in a narrative, making for an enjoyable read.
My only criticism, and it is a big one as it lends a dampening effect on my enthusiasm for the book, is the use of what I found an incredulous plot twist. One of the characters (WARNING—SPOILER ALERT) accidentally kills themselves and Addie is blamed for this misery. Addie sent a letter to Roland and Roland’s wife has the letter in her lap while accidentally leaving her engine running while staying in her car in a small windowless garage and she dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. I think a number of things: 1) it takes longer than that to die of carbon monoxide poisoning 2) the character would know something was happening—car exhaust is not invisible, she’d get sleepy. She would fight for her life: A natural instinct difficult to overcome, even when someone is intentionally killing themselves. I come at this with the knowledge I have of a family who survived carbon monoxide poisoning last winter in their home, which in this instance was an unseen gas. The father (still awake) became sick before he became sleepy; actually he developed a severe headache.
I think it would’ve been more difficult but far more satisfying if Church had not taken what seems like an easy way out for this particular character. At the time, the character is in serious trouble with a gambling addiction. I also think the plot twist avoids writing Roland’s reaction to the news of Byrd. The unintentional suicide becomes a warped physical manifestation of Addie’s bad decision not to tell Roland about her pregnancy. Instead of taking us to this place, where Addie must face Roland and Roland’s grief for his loss, our attention is diverted to a sad consequence, additionally marred by the fact that the receipt of the letter has nothing to do with the accident. All leading to a further negation of the effects of Addie’s misjudgment.
Not to mention, how do you get a character out of a gambling addiction crisis more easily than having her accidentally kill herself?
Lazy writing? Possibly. It’s not easy writing truly difficult, heart-wrenching scenes full of emotional energy. It’s not easy figuring out what a character would do when trapped between a rock and a hard place.
But I would’ve preferred a more realistic, honest treatment of the way things might’ve worked out for Addie, Roland and his wife. Much like the rest of the novel is written. And it is the rest of the novel that makes it worth reading.