The intriguing title of Gayle Brandeis' The Book of Dead Birds first caught my attention, and I wasn't disappointed by the content of this novel of inordinate sensitivity. The struggle of a daughter to reach through layers of memory to a distant mother is universal in theme but personal and poignant in fact as Ava Ling So and her mother, Helen, cross continents in a history that spans Korea and Southern California. The story is familiar: loss of communication and the absence of comfort, when words are muted by shame, replaced with silence. But it is also a story of redemption and the reawakening of love, a mother's bitter, paralyzing pain and a daughter's sense of self-worth.
As a girl in Korea, Hye-yang is a dutiful daughter raised in a culture that schools her not to speak of past tragedies. Leaving her village home, tricked into the dangerous world of prostitution, she is unable to escape days of degradation as a worthless vessel for men's desires. When a white soldier brings Hye-yang, now Helen, to the United States as his bride, she is unable to tell her spouse that she is already pregnant, incapable of unleashing the consequences of such damning words. When her daughter is born with black skin, the soldier abuses and discards Helen and baby Ava. Helen is deeply scarred by her life as a prostitute, the death of her only friend in Korea, and the paralyzing fear of a single mother in a foreign land. She resorts to her only ally, silence.
A girl of mixed ancestry, the child of a mother whose legacy is burdened with shame, Ava Sing Lo is unable to define herself as a person. Ava is further damaged when she secretly peruses a journal kept by her mother, one in which Helen documents the pet birds Ava inadvertently kills with kind gestures over the years. To Ava, the scrapbook points to her failure as a daughter, one incapable of nurturing even a bird. She longs for her mother's approval yet hears only Helen's disappointment.
Ava's temporary move to the Salton Sea from her native San Diego in an effort to rescue endangered pelicans is the first step on a journey that will ultimately bring the two women together with mutual longing and comfort. Ava's furtive appeal for inclusion is handled with extraordinary compassion. Surrounded by the eccentric characters who people the geographic anomaly that is the Salton Sea, Ava carves a place of her own, secure in the boundaries of personal and social intimacy.
The metaphor of the birds bridges two cultures, Korean and American. Birds are ubiquitous in Helen's Korea, squawking in dissonance or chirping constantly, significant in their ability to salvage sustenance from the small scraps afforded by nature: a lesson in survival. The difficulty is in the translation of one culture to another. The social restrictions exercised in Korea have left Helen overwhelmed, fearful and mute in America. It is the strength of Ava's generous and forgiving heart that allows them the grace of acceptance. Ava is finally able to tell her mother, "I know the language of birds."