228 pages, $14.95
Review by Jody Hobbs Hesler
Kim Church’s debut novel Byrd is essentially a love story for a lost child. Its main character, Addie gives the child up for adoption after she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. The pregnancy is unintended and almost miraculous (you’ll have to read it yourself to find out why), but Addie never imagines keeping the baby. Giving him up, though, leaves a hole that Addie never quite fills. So she writes letters to her absent son, nursing “hopes but no expectations” that one day they might meet.
Spanning more than 20 years of Addie’s and birth-father Roland’s lives before and after the pregnancy, through alternating points of view, the book slowly leads us to understand why Addie feels unprepared for parenthood and why she neglects to tell Roland about the child until many years later. Inter-spliced throughout are poignant letters to Byrd, which is what Addie calls her child, intending it as “a name no one else would ever call you. One thing about you that would be only mine.”
Right away from one of these letters we learn that Addie is thirty-two at the time of the pregnancy: “I wish I could tell you we were young, inexperienced, not yet grownups or ready to be. That’s the story you’re expecting, isn’t it?” she says. So we deduce that the budding teenage romance between Addie and rock-and-roll aspirer Roland, described early in the book, is portentous, but not imminently so. From there, we follow Addie and Roland along the roads of their separate lives, until they cross paths fatefully at thirty-two, and we continue to follow them afterward, as their life choices shape their destinies.
Early on, Addie confides in a letter to Byrd, “I’ve learned that it’s possible to become satisfied with your life too soon.” Maybe this explains why, after graduating college, she remains complacent living in her college town and working at “the Readery, a secondhand bookstore in a decrepitly elegant Victorian house” for most of the duration of the book. Maybe the same rationale explains why Roland seems content to schlep about at small-time music gigs, working days helping to build sets for Hollywood, while living in a shabby apartment near the ocean at thirty-two when Addie finds him again.
For Roland, “‘Music is how my brain works… Ever since I hit my head [in a childhood accident], the only way I can think is in music. Which is cool when you’re playing guitar, but not when you’re not,’” a proclamation that goes a long way toward defining the tragedies of his character. His and Addie’s driftless qualities must contribute to Addie’s decision to forfeit her role as a parent while they also help us relate to the slow unfurling of her regrets.
The writing style throughout is terse and tight. Some of my favorite descriptions are of the music Roland plays. He “has a Fender Stratocaster strung backward so he can play it left-handed,” and he likes music with that “run-down, lied-to sound.” Particularly in the scene when Roland plays “After Midnight,” the language flourishes: “In the song, midnight isn’t here yet. Roland knows. He holds back, plays it spare. Long, slow notes with plenty of space in between. It sounds like the front end of a thunderstorm, when the first rain begins to hit the pavement: those slow, fat, hard drops just before the whole sky comes crashing down.”
Above all, though, the story belongs to Addie and the longed-for Byrd. Addie’s feeling of displacement echoes itself in the displacement of her child. Her quest to see her son again and resolve her seemingly unquenchable wish to be “one of anything” form the hinge around which the rest of this elegiac novel revolves.
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Steel Toe Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prime Number, Pearl, Stealing Time: A Literary Magazine for Parents, Charlottesville Family Magazine, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah, and more. You can follow her at jodyhobbshesler.com or on her Facebook writer page: Jody Hobbs Hesler – Writer.