Where the Sweet Bird Sings
By Ella Joy Olsen
Release Date: August 29, 2017
Reviewed by Janga
Reviewed by Janga
It has been a year since the death of three-year-old Joey Hazelton, the only child of Emma and Noah Hazelton, but Emma is still mired in her grief. Noah wants to have another child, but Emma is unwilling to take the gamble. When both parents are carriers, as Emma and Noah are, any child they have has one chance in four of having Canavan disease, the rare genetic disorder that killed Joey. It seems to Emma that their difference cannot be resolved and that her marriage is over. She and Noah will never again be the people they were before Joey’s death. She is still caught in a maelstrom of questions about her life when she is faced with a second loss. Exactly one year after the funeral of her son, Emma’s beloved grandfather is buried.
Her mother, eager to ensure that Emma does not fall back into the apathetic state in which she had been sunk before her grandfather’s illness, insists that she needs Emma’s help to sort through her grandfather’s belongings. While engaged in this sorting, Emma comes across a wedding photograph from 1916 that puzzles her. Her grandfather was born in 1913, but his parents’ wedding picture is dated 1916. There is also an unidentified woman in the picture to whom Emma bears a striking resemblance. The bride is Emmaline, the grandmother for whom Emma was named, but who is the other woman? Her quest to identify the mysterious woman leads Emma to the Mormon Family History Library, but each fact uncovered leads to more questions. Emma will learn family secrets that encompass not just past generations of her family but her immediate family as well, secrets that cause her to question her own identity. But once the secrets are revealed, knowledge will lead to forgiveness, understanding, acceptance and an embracing of life.
There is much to admire in this book. No loss is more grievous than the death of a child, and Emma’s grief is compounded by her feeling that her own body which carries the defective gene has delivered her child’s death sentence. It is not uncommon for couples to experience marital problems after the death of a child. Each person handles grief differently, and the differences between Emma and Noah are amplified by their conflict over more children. Anyone who has ever researched his/her own family history will understand the fascination the past holds for Emma. It is also easy to sympathize with the effect her discoveries have on her sense of identity, already fragile since she is no longer a mother and is questioning her role as a wife. Olsen tells this first-person narrative from Emma’s point of view. The result is a story that has intimacy and immediacy.
However, the first-person point of view also has some drawbacks. The extended introspection may lead readers to become impatient with the narrator’s wavering. I confess her indecisiveness meant that I found Noah the more sympathetic character for much of the novel. As well, I sometimes found Emma outright unlikable. I have a problem with characters who decide what is best for other adults. Emma leaves Noah because she thinks he deserves to have healthy children with another woman. She considers sacrificing their marriage because she thinks separate futures will be the right thing for Noah. Some may see this as noble. I thought it was presumptuous. She is slow to acknowledge the anger she feels because Noah could not be the hero she needed him to be to save their son. That feeling was understandable, if irrational, but it undercut her more overt motive. Then, she comes very close to making a reprehensible choice. The point of view also meant that a family estrangement that has endured for most of another character’s lifetime is resolved “offstage.” Readers are told about it rather than seeing the reconciliation. It makes the resolution to a complex problem seem simplistic.
This is an interesting and emotionally potent book, but the limitations of first-person point of view made it a flawed one for me. Discussions have abounded about whether a reader must like a protagonist. When the book is romance or women’s fiction, I want a high likability quotient. Readers who do not and who do not view the p-o-v restrictions as flaws will likely enjoy this book more than I did.