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Originally published Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'When Women Were Birds': Grappling with a mother's parting gift

In "When Women Were Birds," author and memoirist Terry Tempest Williams ("Refuge") gets an enigmatic gift from her dead mother and, years later, writes about it from many angles: poetry, politics, confession, therapy.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'When Women Were Birds'

by Terry Tempest Williams

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp., $24

It begins like something out of a fairy tale — a woman on her deathbed tells her only daughter that she is leaving her journals to her.

The daughter hadn't even known of her mother's literary efforts, but she waits for a full month after her mother passes away before she can bring herself to go to the place where her mother had told her the journals would be. There she finds shelf after shelf of beautiful, clothbound volumes. Suddenly eager for the solace of her mother's voice from beyond the grave, the daughter opens the first journal — but finds only blank pages. She turns to the next book, and then the next — all are devoid of words.

That daughter was Terry Tempest Williams, and "When Women Were Birds" is her true-life memoir of what she has made of her mother's dying gift to her.

She puzzles over what her mother intended in leaving her writer-daughter all those blank journals — was it to protect, to deny, to tease, to prepare, to goad, to inspire, to illuminate? The vastness of those empty pages roars with a stillness that Williams is loath to endure. She tackles the enigma over and over again from different angles, butting up against memories of her childhood, of her marriage and of her career as a naturalist and a writer.

In 54 entries of varying lengths and dispositions, Williams writes of voices and of silence. She is 54 years old as she writes this book. Her mother was only 54 when she died. Time, experience and uncanny coincidence spiral through these pages. Williams circles back to past events with new insights, keen and feather-light. Not only in words but in music and in images, she discovers accretions of grace in the face of insurmountable odds. No one gets out alive, after all, but, in the meantime, what are we to make of our existence?

Williams, author of the award-winning memoir "Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place," talks about writing as poetry, as politics, as conferral and as confessional. She writes about speech as conversation, as diagnosis and as therapy. She grapples with the uses of language: polemic, code, story, verdict and vow. And she considers language beyond words in humans and other species — whales sing, squirrels scream, cranes dance.

Birds, especially, populate these meditations, serving as talisman and metaphor — as Williams puts it, "The shadow of each bird is speaking to me."

It is unlikely that every one of these entries will speak to the reader. Williams' digression on opera is a belabored play-by-play. And her allusions to the strains of marriage in midlife are coy to the point of befuddling.

"There is an art to writing, and it is not always disclosure," Williams maintains.

True, but we might debate the efficacy of some of that artistic reticence.

On the other hand, no reader will be unprovoked by Williams' terrifying story of her encounter with a dangerous man and her response to the threat. She ruefully admits to "the violence of my silence" — and she couldn't be more right about having been so wrong.

Ultimately, however, "When Women Were Birds" is fable/memoir/morality tale sans proscriptions. It is an extraordinary echo chamber in which lessons about voice — passed along from mother, to daughter, and now to us — will reverberate differently in each inner ear.

Barbara Lloyd McMichael reads and writes in Burien.

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