Kim Church’s novel Byrd is a slim but powerful tale that sweeps through decades telling the saga of its characters, an epic that is all the more remarkable considering the averageness of its subject matter. Here is the story of two young people filled with dreams of escaping their average lives, only to find that their lives are remarkably normal. These two high-school friends form a lackadaisical adult friendship that results in the conception of a child, known only to the reader as “Byrd.”
The title is somewhat of a misnomer (aside from various interwoven metaphors) as the story is not really about Byrd at all but about his origins. The story is a coming-of-age not for him but for his parents, whose lives are told in startlingly quick passages. Despite the arrangement of short chapters, the novel’s pace never really seems rushed; instead, the story accurately reflects how quickly time passes, something that Byrd’s parents learn as the tale and their lives advance, and a fact that Byrd and all young people will learn eventually.
The reader is introduced immediately to Byrd’s parents, Addie and Roland, as children before they even know each other. They meet in junior high and have a brief and unfulfilled romantic interest in each other. The two meet again in their twenties, when they conceive a child, but aside from that—and one correspondence years later—they have almost no interaction with each other. Instead, they are separated by a continent and proceed to live the rest of their lives apart—and in Roland’s case, with no knowledge that he has a son.
Roland does not know about their child because Addie secretly gives him up for adoption, so a major part of the novel are sections formed by the letters that Addie writes to the son she never knows. The epistolary nature is highly effective; the reader is the recipient of the love and intimacy shown in the letters, and thus Church creates the dual effect of a better understanding of Addie, who writes them, and the child who, unknown to him, affects his mother greatly. With this understanding comes knowledge that Byrd is likely never going to experience the world of his parents or the many characters that inhabit it. However, the reader is privy to the world Byrd is denied, as Church gives Roland and Addie’s points of view and provides brief segments told by Roland’s wife, Addie’s father and brother, and more. Each of these characters influences ¬the other and, unknowingly, Byrd.
Alternating points of view may not be unique, but it is often stylistically effective. That is the case with this novel. Though some of the characters seem underdeveloped, the reader is nonetheless invested in them. Church makes no apologies for her character’s choices; they are flawed but ultimately forgivable, and even though they are bound by their past mistakes, they adjust to them as best they can in the tedium of their lives. Such a presentation provides them acceptance instead of excuse, which presents the readers with people that are startlingly real.
Woven between the alternating narrative styles are deeper themes, many of which give the novel its true depth. One of the most prominent themes is the concept of choice as relevant to innocence and experience. The choices that Roland and Addie make not only affect their lives, but Byrd’s life, and throughout the novel there is a repeated emphasis on major decisions such as moving, marriage, addiction, and pursuing (and giving up on) dreams. Each decision the characters make, momentous or minute, affects others. Oftentimes, these decisions have a major influence on another character, so much so that Byrd, forever unknown to the reader except through Addie’s imaginings of who he may be, is affected most of all. The effect of this is that Church achieves showing readers how much influence others have over us, despite our unawareness of it, and such a message is disturbingly revelatory.
In writing this novel, Church captures an essential truth about life: that rarely is life perfect—despite all planning—but it usually turns out okay. Such honest simplicity is what makes this story an overwhelming success. Byrd is a surprising novel because in terms of literary methodology, it seems to do everything wrong. In its willing embrace of error, it defies the status quo to present a story that succeeds, even though by literary standards it should not. Occasionally, novels have such a rare and enchanting quality, and when they do the narrative deserves not only praise, but also respect.