The story of "The Gravity of Birds" follows two paths. On the one hand, we have the story of Alice and Natalie Kessler - sisters who were once lovingly close and now forcibly remain together, still bonded by mutual bitterness. Part of that bitterness comes from Alice's Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Natalie's need to care for her sister after their parents die. But a larger part comes from the pasts that both women are running from.
Then there is Thomas Bayber's story - the charismatic and extremely talented artist who stopped painting and became a recluse, but no one knows why. Then Thomas calls his friend, the Professor of Art History and Bayber expert, Dennis Finch, to tell him of the existence of a painting that Finch never catalogued. Bayber insists Finch use the out-of-luck but expert art authenticator, Stephen Jameson to validate the work is real. But they quickly discover that the painting "The Kessler Sisters" is actually one of a triptych, and Jameson's art dealers will only agree to sell the painting with its companions. This is when these two paths begin to intertwine, and the mystery behind Bayber's last works and the two women begins to unfold.
Yes, this is a fairly complicated plot. Thankfully, for the most part, it has been dealt with in a very elegant manner. To begin with, the sections containing the flashbacks about Alice and Natalie have a very gentle and poetic fell about them. These are nicely contrasted by the more modern sounding parts which recount Finch and Stephen's detective work. In fact, these parts feel so different it is almost hard to believe they were both written by the same person. However, Guzeman does some mixing between the two. For instance, when Alice speaks, there is nothing sentimental in her choice of words. On the other hand, when Finch thinks about his wife and daughter, the descriptions flow with sensitivity. This allows the two stories to feel more cohesive and helps them both circle around Bayber - the man and his art.
What's really fascinating about Guzeman's writing is how she has these parts spiral in ever decreasing orbits until they practically collide, making the reader all the more interested in reaching the conclusion. This could be the metaphor of the word 'gravity' in the title, as the two stories pull towards each other. As for the birds, first Alice and then Bayber are drawn to them for their own reasons. But it is more than that, and the application of other meaning of 'gravity' only becomes evident as we near the end of the book. All this gives the novel a very carefully carved - almost sculpted feel, without ever feeling stiff or stilted.
There were, however, a few things that didn't sit completely right with me. For instance, several characters hear voices from the past (and even the distant present). These were mostly done as flashbacks inserted into the action, which flit by like... well, birds. The idea is obviously a good one, and in many places these were executed very well. However, in a few instances, Guzeman gives these shadows enough of a physical presence that they can practically, and sometimes literally, be touched and felt. While I'm willing to accept voices from beyond and the past in people's heads, the few encounters that went beyond that just didn't work for me. I also felt that as we got closer to the conclusion, there were some passages that related to characters pasts and their present motivations which distract the reader from the action. I would have preferred these to have stayed in the earlier parts of the book, and not nearer the end when I was anxious to read how things turned out.
Obviously, the frustration I felt at these sections only goes to prove how engrossing this story really is. Guzeman is very talented at building characters that evoke empathy from the reader while weaving a tale that has almost as many twists as a mystery novel. Her use of atmospheric language is carefully crafted to suit the time-frames involved, and the characters themselves. All told, "The Gravity of Birds" by Tracey Guzeman is a lovely story with fascinating characters. This debut novel deserves a solid recommendation of four stars out of five.
"The Gravity of Birds" by Tracey Guzeman is due to be released on August 6, 2013 by Simon & Schuster. You can pre-order the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound. Thanks to the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.