There is a sly moment in Kim Church's debut novel, "Byrd," when a minor character pans a poet for writing "a whole book about not having children." The character, who works at a bookstore, resists shelving the book as fiction lest customers "think there's a plot."
Church, herself a poet, has also crafted a book about childlessness by coloring outside traditional plot lines. "Byrd" is the story of Addie Lockwood, a woman who reunites with her high school boyfriend, becomes pregnant, and surrenders her infant son for adoption without telling the father. The novel tumbles kaleidoscopically over more than four decades, with characters and circumstances shifting in and out of focus through a series of vignettes and letters.
Addie's is the main voice, expressed most poignantly in the letters she writes but does not send to the child she calls Byrd. From Addie's point of view, we learn of her early life in North Carolina, her teenage romance and adult fling with rock musician Roland Rhodes, her isolation as a bookstore clerk during her 20s and 30s, and her midlife career and relationship changes.
In dizzying succession, Church shares additional snapshots of life through the lenses of Addie's parents, her brother, her lovers, even her astrologer. The novel devotes several passages not just to Roland but also to Roland's wife and the couple's son — neither of whom Addie ever meets.
The rapid movement and multiple perspectives could be disorienting, but Church grounds her novel with a unifying theme. On every page, "Byrd" is about people missing each other. Characters abandon and disappoint one another as they attempt to avoid abandonment and disappointment. They want what others seem to have: people to love who love them back.
Church conveys loss and longing with deft economy, in prose that is spare but lovely. She sustains the novel's mood through well-chosen details, such as the musical references that run through the pages like a soundtrack. Addie plays Carole King's "So Far Away" while she's pregnant, observing that the bass line contains "every bit of unrootedness and longing there ever was."
More than any of the characters who trip into and out of the spotlight, the book's offstage title character represents hope. While Byrd himself makes only a fleeting appearance at the moment of his birth, his absence helps to define the novel. In a sense, the book is a history awaiting Byrd's discovery and a plea for his forgiveness. As readers, we discover and forgive in Byrd's stead. And in Church's capable hands, we are glad to do both.
Kim Kankiewicz is co-founder of Eastside Writes, a community-based literary arts organization near Seattle. She's online at kimkankiewicz.com.