In Kessler’s second novel (following Lick Creek, 2001, not reviewed), the relatives of the victims of an airplane crash are thrown together briefly in a remote inn.
A Dutch jet plane, en route from New York to Amsterdam, crashes into the ocean off Trachis Island, near Nova Scotia. The local innkeeper, Kevin Gearns, a middle-aged gay American who owns the inn with his partner Douglas, is asked to accommodate the passengers’ relatives. They are a mixed bunch: a Chinese couple, a Bulgarian pianist, an Iranian exile, etc. And then there is the American ornithologist, Ana Gathreaux; she and Kevin are the protagonists. We seem to be in for a formulaic story of strangers becoming entangled, but that is not Kessler’s purpose. He is as much concerned with the spirit as the flesh. One of the passengers, Ana’s husband Russell (another ornithologist), had wondered, seconds before the crash, about his coming metamorphosis. He had once told Ana he believed in ghosts. The Liangs from Taipei are absolute believers; they wait up all night for their daughter Tien to appear. Diana Olmstead, a convert to Buddhism who has lost a sister, has a different agenda. She feels compelled to offer comfort to all “the souls of the dead through their transmigration,” for there will be no survivors. The climax for the relatives comes on a night during a raging storm, when the power is out. They are drawn to the candlelit piano where the Bulgarian is playing a Chopin nocturne for his drowned cellist wife, and creating a momentary union between the living and the dead, gathered outside. This might have been a haunting novella, but Kessler has enlarged his story with extensive commentary on birds, especially their migratory patterns, Ana’s specialty. We are left reflecting how much we already know about their extraordinary journeys, and how little about our own.
Whether the bird lore is essential to the story is debatable; what is not is the elegance of the meditation on mortality.