The Bird Catcher by Laura Jacobs

The Bird Catcher BY Laura Jacobs. St. Martin's Press. Hardcover, 304 pages. $24.
The cover of The Bird Catcher

Laura Jacobs is an urban miniaturist. In her sleek, pitch-perfect second novel, The Bird Catcher, she lavishes delectable attention on the subtle distinctions wrought by taste, class, money, and style in the city on which she trains her eagle eye. But there is nothing diminutive in her vision: Under the force of her piercing, halogen-bright gaze, the world cracks open, large and luminous.

Her latest protagonist, thirty-one-year-old Margaret Snow, is quietly but desperately trying to keep her head above water. A dropout from the graduate art-history program at Columbia University, Margaret now spends her days at Saks, where she creates extravagant displays for the windows that line Fifth Avenue. Much of her free time is spent bird-watching, either in the upper reaches of Central Park or at her weekend cottage on the Chesapeake Bay. Jacobs limns Margaret’s mounting despair with deftness and restraint; it’s not until page 59 that we learn Margaret’s adored husband, Charles—a scholar of ancient Assyria, university professor, and fellow bird enthusiast—was killed in a plane crash.

Newly widowed and reeling, Margaret stumbles through the broken rhythm of her days, trying to make herself whole again. There are gallery openings, dinner parties, nimble banter, and the occasional feud with her coworkers; there is Margaret’s friendship with her onetime college roommate, Emily. But most compelling is her birding, an activity she shared not only with Charles but also with her grandfather, in whose patient company she learned to watch, listen, and wait.

Margaret rejects the easy and sentimental tropes of her hobby. Instead, she recalls the “kestrel on a nearby air conditioner, eating a sparrow. It plucked the bird like a cook at the sink, decapitating it; then from the red hole at the neck it ate down and around. When only the bottom half was left, a cup with two spindly legs, from this gruesome goblet, the falcon pulled out the guts and swallowed them whole.” She finds herself increasingly drawn not to live birds, but to dead ones, the “greasy smudges, bills broken, sometimes just a head, the body already eaten by gulls,” and experiences a “lifting elation as she knelt down to stillness.” She begins to use the dead birds she harvests to give expression to her sorrow and her wonder. The birds—which, in a couple of brilliantly rendered scenes, she teaches herself to stuff and mount—become an integral part of the work she creates, work that brings her first fame, then disgrace, and finally a fragile chance at salvation.

One of this novel’s keenest pleasures is watching Margaret’s transformation from passive spectator to active creator, one who takes the raw, messy leavings of grief and wrestles them into art. No minor feat, this, and without sounding a single wrong note, Jacobs orchestrates her character’s sonata as expansively and dramatically as a symphony whose strains linger on, long after the last page has been turned.

Yona Zeldis McDonough’s most recent novel, Breaking the Bank, will be published by Downtown Press in September.