'Birds of Paradise': a teenage runaway leaves a wake of anguish
Diana Abu-Jaber's beautifully written novel "Birds of Paradise" tells the story of a Miami family grappling with their teenage daughter's estrangement. Abu-Jaber will read Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Diana Abu-JaberThe author will read from "Birds of Paradise" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
It's impossible to read the work of Diana Abu-Jaber without at least an occasional lump in the throat. There's the melancholy of her immigrant father in the memoir "The Language of Baklava"; the timid, tender romance of "Crescent"; the wounded souls of "Arabian Jazz"; the haunted forensics specialist of "Origin."
The lump is permanent in Abu-Jaber's new novel, the heart- rending "Birds of Paradise" (W.W. Norton & Company, 362 pp., $25.95). It unfolds in the summer of 2005, right before Hurricane Katrina hits Miami, as the Muir family — mother Avis, father Brian, older brother Stanley — weathers an emotional storm. Beloved daughter Felice, who ran away from home at the age of 13, is about to turn 18. Felice has kept in touch with Avis sporadically under the condition that the family not search for her.
Abu-Jaber is able to achingly express each family member's regrets, hopes and fears. Those left behind by Felice mostly cope by throwing themselves into work. Dutiful Stanley, neglected by his shellshocked parents, manages to make it through high school and precociously opens an organic grocery. Avis runs a gourmet bakery out of her home, allowing Abu-Jaber to showcase one of her strengths, writing about the passion for preparing food: "Baking, to Avis, was no less precise than chemistry: an exquisite transfiguration ... " Brian is a lawyer in a real-estate development firm giddily building high-rises in the pre-crash bubble. He is surrounded by macho posturing and bluster, much of it in Spanglish, which Abu-Jaber incorporates seamlessly. (She splits her time between Portland and the Miami area).
But Avis and Brian differ drastically in the other ways they cope. Avis is ruled by emotion, consumed by guilt and endless "whys" and "what ifs." Abu-Jaber describes Avis' fragile state of mind with devastating clarity: "She remembers how she dreaded sleep in the months after Felice left. But her dreams were light and oddly pleasant — heartbreaking only upon waking. There were certain things she couldn't say or think or hear in those months. Like daughter or child. Or lost. That was the worst of all, a sliver of metal under her breastbone."
Brian is ruled by logic. He "forbids himself certain memories," but, of course, they come anyway: "Early spring nights where they sat together on the hood of the car eating ice cream, watching for the red pulse of a passing space station. Is that what a happy family looks like? ... "
Beautiful Felice, the source of all this anguish, is in the purgatory of keeping a terrible secret. She ekes out a living with odd modeling jobs amid the glitz and sleaze of South Beach, loosely bonded to other street kids but perpetually "alone and broke and afraid of things."
Abu-Jaber conjures especially well the tropical essence of Miami, such as an impending afternoon storm as two troubled teens tentatively cling to each other in a hammock:
"The sky grows overcast with mounting summer thunderheads but there's no rain, just a dense, hot curtain of air. The afternoon is pure languor ... There's something drugged about the stillness of the air ... just a white insect whir, a slush of fronds in the breeze ... The air smells of the ferns and dirt and stone, the before-rain ... "
Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi, a Seattle Times desk editor, grew up in Puerto Rico and Florida.
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