‘A Catalog of Birds’ soars from despair to hope, from pain to joy

Laura Harrington’s novel, set in 1970, initially seems like a coming-of-age story, but ultimately becomes so much more.

“A Catalog of Birds”

by Laura Harrington

Europa, 224 pp., $16

It’s 1970 in Laura Harrington’s brilliant new novel, “A Catalog of Birds,” and Nell Flynn is about to graduate from high school. A young scientist on her way to Cornell, Nell has her whole life in front of her. She’s in love with her brother’s best friend and lives with her parents in a small town on one of New York’s Finger Lakes.

At first glance, this may seem like an ordinary coming-of-age story, but one of the great pleasures of reading “A Catalog of Birds” is that it’s as impossible to categorize as it is to put down. The smooth path of Nell’s life is interrupted by tragedy. Her best friend, Megan, disappears mysteriously, and her beloved brother, Billy, comes home from Vietnam severely injured. At once, the novel becomes a searing war story and a page-turning thriller.

An award-winning playwright, Harrington captures her characters with quick strokes and sharp dialogue, creating a complex and richly told tale. She evokes Billy’s suffering in war, exploring the consequences of his trauma on Nell, and she describes the fear and sorrow that grip the entire town when Megan vanishes.

In the midst of these dramas, Harrington allows Nell’s life to unfold in its quiet ordinariness, a poignant counterpoint to the travails of her brother and the mystery of Megan’s disappearance. Thus, Nell wonders if the boy she likes will ever kiss her, and in the next scene Billy totals his car. Nell feeds Megan’s ponies and then detectives appear, asking for more information about Megan. Nell helps her mother make dinner, and Billy goes to the local bar and drinks until he’s unconscious.

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The novel’s title comes from Billy and Nell’s passion for birds and the…

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