Review: The Book of Dead Birds, by Gayle Brandeis

The Book of Dead Birds, Gayle Brandeis

I don’t even know. I think that in the end I found this book to have been a waste of my time. Maybe that’s unfair. It’s a pretty contrived novel about a woman who is half-black and half-Korean (guess how), and the author sort of co-opts all of this history in weird and unproductive and clichéd ways, and in the end the book isn’t good enough to justify any of it. I love the Salton Sea, and I was very excited at the prospect of a novel set there, but this is just sort of a mess. There’s too much discussion of race for the book to not be about it, and yet the protagonist’s background only influences her in very, very specific ways, and it gets brushed under the rug at all sorts of points when it seems like it would be rearing its head. Ava is, as a result, a not-very-believable first-person narrator. We don’t get any real sense of who she is apart from her tense relationship with her mother, which might be the point, but I don’t really think so. She’s just not all that interesting. There’s also a romantic subplot that is really painfully dull and trite. I absolutely loathed that entire storyline and cringed whenever the romantic interest showed up.

I did, however, think that the stuff about the birds was neat – Ava’s mother keeps a diary of all the pet birds Ava has accidentally killed, and so Ava goes to the Salton Sea to rescue dying pelicans, as penance. That’s interesting. So are the women Ava meets who live at the Sea. Those scenes were great, and I thought Brandeis did a terrific job of describing that region—her writing is lovely, particularly when she’s describing scenery and wildlife. If the novel had just stuck to the birds, instead of trying way too hard to work in a subplot about the Korean mom who was forced into prostitution, this book might have been okay – the A-plot could have kept it afloat. But Brandeis tries way too hard to make a Serious Statement and spends too much time hitting us over the head with Symbolism, and the story flounders as a result.

In short: Whatever.

Read it if you like: The Salton Sea, Memoirs of a Geisha

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