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If books have sensibilities, and I believe they do, Georgeann Packard’s Paint the Bird has an artist’s—it is dark, moody, prone to fits of whimsy, but also intense, hard-working, digging deep for the transcendence that makes art art. Not to mention its obsession with color and light.
Of course, it’s a fitting metaphor, because one of the protagonists in Paint the Bird is an artist, the painter Abraham Darby. The other protagonist is Reverend Sarah Obadias, a lapsed pastor seeking solace in all the wrong places. Or maybe not. Maybe what looks wrong on a normal day is right when your world is falling apart.
Sarah and Darby meet in a bar on a winter night and go home together. The next morning, he asks a favor; reluctantly, she agrees. What follows is Darby’s son’s funeral and Sarah’s introduction to Darby’s tempestuous family and life. Yago—Darby’s son—has died at 39 from a heart attack brought on by long-term treatment for AIDS, and leaves behind his husband, Johnny, and their son, Angelo. While Darby clearly has problems with Yago’s life choices—he says at the funeral, “[H]is homosexuality was a roadblock he set. He stopped sharing his life with me when he joined this…culture? Lifestyle? Whatever you all call it”—he also clearly loved his son and is bereft at his passing. Sarah and Darby leave Brooklyn for Orient, Long Island, where Johnny and Angelo, Angelo’s birth mother, Alyssa, and Alejandra, Darby’s ex and Yago’s mother, soon join them. What happens when this nontraditional and opinionated group of people come together? Not the catharsis or grieving process one might expect. Yago’s presence infuses much of the book—he is as much a character as any of the living ones, and he, in turn, becomes the thread that ties the living together.
Packard’s poetic prose suits the mood of this book well, and though there were occasional plot twists toward the end that gave me pause, for the most part, I was immersed in Sarah and Darby’s world. There’s a restrained passion in Paint the Bird that fairly oozes out of the pages. This book is ultimately an exploration of religion—and there are many included here: God, art, sex, alcohol, food, nature—and the processes of faith and grief. The characters are unlike anyone you’ve ever met, they are wise and troubled and instinctual animals. One character says to Sarah, of a portrait done by Alejandra: “Couldn’t you also say that she painted a light within you greater than the darkness around you?” And this is the truth of this world, of these characters; they emit their own light, even though they don’t always recognize or understand it. And what is light? It’s what we move toward in times of darkness—the metaphorical end of the tunnel.
Paint the Bird will draw you in, sinuous and sensuous, and it will challenge you. It’s a fast read, but it isn’t an easy book, and I wouldn’t want it to be. It asks big questions and does not deign to provide false answers. Paint the Bird is a raw and memorable exploration of darkness and light, of color in the world, of how we grieve and how we move toward faith.
Paint the Bird
by Georgeann Packard
The Permanent Press
Paperback, 9781579623173, 240 pp.