An “astonishing debut collection, by a writer reminiscent of such greats as Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, and even Chekhov” (Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants), focusing on women navigating relationships with humans, animals, and the natural world.
Exploring the way our choices and relationships are shaped by the menace and beauty of the natural world, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s powerful and heartwarming collection captures the surprising moments when the pull of our biology becomes evident, when love or fear collides with good sense, or when our attachment to an animal or wild place can’t be denied.
In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son drive hours to track down an African gray parrot that can mimic her deceased mother’s voice. A population-control activist faces the conflict between her loyalty to the environment and her maternal desire in “Yesterday’s Whales.” And in the title story, a lonely naturalist allows an attractive stranger to lead her and her aging father on a hunt for an elusive woodpecker.
As intelligent as they are moving, the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise are alive with emotion, wit, and insight into the impressive power that nature has over all of us. This extraordinary collection introduces a young writer of remarkable talent.
Bergman's stellar debut is set among the dense forests and swamps of her native North Carolina and rooted firmly in a crumbling and economically troubled post-crash America. These 12 short stories, all but two of which were published in journals like One Story, Ploughshares, and Narrative (and anthologized in the Best American and New Stories from the South series), may be tethered to familiar Southern gothic tropes, but Bergman deftly sidesteps clich and sentimentality, using honest autobiographical moments to make her work unique (like Yannick Murphy (The Call), Bergman's husband is a veterinarian, a character that appears in several stories). Reflections on the natural world, animals both domestic and wild, family, and death figure prominently as motifs. In the title story, a young woman who lives with her father in backwoods North Carolina confronts her loneliness and her father's mortality when an attractive stranger engages them to help find a woodpecker believed to be extinct. While Bergman's tone is melancholic, a sense of possibility and rebirth figures prominently. "Six times he'd eaten a sock. Five times it had come out the other side, worse for wear, composted," says the narrator of "The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock," a struggling new mother whose dog survives the sock only to take on a bear desperate for a taste of honey. Bergman writes straightforward, elegant prose that dovetails nicely with swampy Americana, and possesses a great facility for off-kilter observations. A woman in "Housewifely Arts" learns the details of her mother's mourning for her dead husband from a parrot, and worries after her own child: "The things my body has done to him, I think. Cancer genes, hay fever, high blood pressure, perhaps a fear of math these are my gifts."
Megan is a fabulous writer, who has taken her views on the human animal bond to another level. Her stories are real, honest, and meaningful. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves animals, enjoys life, and relates to the powerful pull of the world around us.