Megan Mayhew Bergman, Birds of a Lesser Paradise
Delicate, deceptively profound stories about love, loss, and animal husbandry
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s debut collection opens, fittingly, with an epigraph from Charles Darwin: “We will now discuss in a little more detail the Struggle for Existence.” The characters who populate the 12 stories that follow find their own private struggles inextricably bound up in their relationships with animals and the natural world. In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother drives for hours to visit a parrot she hates because the bird can mimic her dead mother’s voice. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” a pregnant population-control activist fights to reconcile her environmental ethics with her sudden, overwhelming desire for a child. In the title story, a naturalist’s aging, ailing father succumbs to a heart attack while questing in a swamp for an elusive, likely extinct woodpecker. And in “Another Story She Won’t Believe,” a recovering alcoholic volunteers to work with lemurs on the off chance that she’ll do better with the animals than she has with humans.
Against a backdrop of dogs and sheep, bantam chickens and wolf hybrids, cats and fish, Bergman’s characters find and lose one another. Parenthood plays a prominent role: People wrestle with loving and hating and saying goodbye to their parents; with how and whether to become parents themselves. Mothers wince as they watch their children awaken to the world’s cruelties: “I don’t want him to know that people like Louis’s mom exist, that people fall into land mines of pain and can’t crawl back out,” the narrator of “Housewifely Arts” says of her young son. In “The Two Thousand Dollar Sock,” another mother buries her beloved dog — who has just died in a final, ecstatic chase after a black bear — and notes that her infant daughter, too, “better than any of us, understands the urge to have what you must have…She still trusts the raw pull of desire. One day it will tear her away from us, take her down a dirt road to a place she does not recognize, and there she will make her home.” We are all of us animals, toiling at the raw, lonely, transcendent task of being alive.
In these moments and others, where less skilled writers might feel compelled to flog and re-flog their thematically significant introspections, Bergman has the knack for tossing out a deft observation and letting it breathe. Deceptively profound but never overwrought, her language is witty, wry, rich, and delicate, offering meditative moments that leaven melancholy with hopefulness. Cassandra Campbell’s narration is smooth and accomplished, and her voice has a faint Southern lilt nicely suited to Bergman’s North Carolina narrators.