Reviewed By Stella Gaffrey-Eley

Aviary by Deirdre McNamer, Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2022, 304 pages, $16

In Diedre McNamer’s novel Aviary, we are intriguingly threaded through a series of oddities by a lofty invisible string, centralizing around one place: the Pheasant Run. The peculiar retirement home is filled with many of McNamer’s offbeat characters. The eccentric Viola Six, who loves her typewriter and absurdist theories, contrasts her best friend in the apartment, Cassie McMackin. The melancholia infused McMackin tends to exemplify peace, despite the calamity of losing her husband and daughter. There is Leo Uberti, the painter, who not only is in eternal service to his first love, but also to the betterment of the building. Down the hall is where retired professor Clovis lives, always scheming for his own benefit. The property manager, Herbie Bonebright, is drenched in suspicion, ignoring the various request of his tenants he demises. He is characterized by his atrocious fashion choices and his reluctance towards those around him.

The string is pulled a little tighter when a small apartment fire occurs at the nearly run-down retirement complex. With Viola and Bonebright missing in action, Chief Fire Inspector Lander Mika utilizes his super sensory skills to unlock the pending questions: How did this fire start? And, who started it? Though the novel does subtly tap into crime fiction elements, the true mystery Mika understands is the puzzling intricacies of humanity and death. Mika’s encounter with Pheasant Run may have appeared serendipitous, but much like the rest of the novel, it played major significance to the plot. We quickly learn that Mika is much more than a fire inspector, he is a husband to Rhonda, a woman who believes there is sweetness in sorting your pet’s past. A Minnesota native, determined to not only discover the truth of the fire, but also the lives of Pheasant Run. Filter in Clayton Spoon, a bullied teenager and soon friend of Cassie McMackin, and the other various inhabitants of Pheasant Run and you get a thrilling novel filled with wit dichotomous to heartbreak and isolation.

Publishing four novels prior to this, McNamer has a beautiful way of personifying nature, allowing the reader to fully immerse themselves into the world she created, as if there was an intention of this book becoming your friend. “The sun lifted itself above the mountain surround to spread light on the little city below,” McNamer writes. A native to Montana, McNamer fully captures the essence of place and its significance to the story. Delving into themes of heartbreak and isolation, McNamer’s novel is a sought-out companion through the various cataclysmic events and political turmoil caused by the pandemic. The haunting, realistic possibility of not-so-happy endings and the inevitability of death creates a story that will not only be emotionally moving, but authentically comforting in a world full of loss and hope.

Though McNamer’s striking wit and word eloquence provides captivating embellishments to draw the reader in, her use of character accentuates the depth and meaning of the novel as a whole. Each chapter centralizes around a different character’s perspective, enabling the reader to make them their personal acquaintance. In the beginning, you fall in love with Maki’s wife, Rhonda, whose passion includes communicating with animals on an almost-spiritual level. You might laugh at the way Viola contemplates liking her own son. Your heart breaks for Cassie, as she slowly loses those she loves. After each page you turn, you cannot help but wonder about the significance of each resident and their responsibility to the plot. McNamer plays heavily with juxtaposition, placing dichotomous characters together to illuminate the absurdity of their inner qualities. The sentimental relationship between Viola and Cassie seems more intentional due to their divergent personalities. Even the age gap between Clayton and Cassie signifies the calamity that follows at all stages of life.
The insidious convolution of death walks hand-in-hand with predestination, permeating the constant thought of what comes next. In McNamer’s novel, various characters grapple with what constitutes as the end. Some characters embrace the sweet nothings and lasting memories of lost ones. Others believe it is something to be scrutinized, perhaps even challenged. Regardless of whether not one plays with death like a toy, or finds it at their door, it is clearly evident that McNamer allows the reader to divulge into their own definition of death—even if its something alluringly catastrophic.