A novel so good it needs no hype: “A Catalog of Birds”

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 14, 2017

Laura Harrington may have won the Kleban Award for most promising librettist in American Musical Theatre, but I know her only as a novelist. And I came to know her quite unwillingly. Would I read a novel about a girl in upstate New York whose father grows “the best corn and the best tomatoes in town?” No thanks. Her publicist persisted. A 14-year-old girl? A father in the National Guard whose unit is called up? Oh, and he goes to Iraq. I groaned. But the publicist really seemed to love “Alice Bliss.” And it was short. I let her send it.

There are books that manipulate you into tears, and then there are books that rip you apart, and you keep reading even though it hurts and your tears are raining — I mean that: raining — on the page. That was Alice Bliss for me. I’m not surprised that it won the Massachusetts Book Award in Fiction and will soon be staged as a musical.

In her just-published second novel, “A Catalog of Birds,” Harrington has taken on bio-chemical warfare and the poisoning of the innocent. She’s set her book in 1970, at the height of a war that damaged everyone it touched. Nell Flynn is a strong student, headed for college and a career in science. Her brother Billy is headed nowhere — he enlisted as a pilot, his helicopter is shot down in Vietnam, he’s the only survivor. He’d been a gifted artist, specializing in birds; now he can barely hold a pencil. The question that drives the book: Can Billy be healed? Can his life be saved?

As a writer, Laura Harrington’s instinct is to go directly to the broken places, the critical times, the glaring problems, the fraught relationships, and then to shine a light on them that is fresh and illuminating, and makes you glad you gave yourself over to her book. Because you’re not just reading a “family saga” here — you become a Flynn. Yes, it’s that good. To order the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the ebook, click here. To read an excerpt, click here.