Book Review: Migratory Animals by Mary Helen Specht
This evening I had the pleasure of seeing author Mary Helen Specht deliver a lecture on snowflakes at the Dionysium’s Science Show, the science edition of an intellectual variety show hosted by Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Theaters. The talk, featuring fantastic images of snowflakes, covered the very special nature of these wonders; how they are truly crystals, how they follow a precise logic and pattern in their creation, and how each one of them is made unique by the specific circumstances they each encounter on their journey from molecules of vapor in the clouds to a blanket of white magic coating the earth.
The lecture was inspired by research that Ms. Specht conducted into climate science and specifically the science of snow for her debut novel Migratory Animals. The novel focuses on the lives of a group of college friends who have now entered their thirties and are finding that their lives are not turning out exactly how they imagined they would in their idealist youth. Let me stop there. While this mundane statement is true of the book, this one sentence synopsis of the general events which occur in the novel comes nowhere near the elegant complexity of the whole, whose layers will continue to reveal themselves to you well after you have read the final page.
A Gathering of Friends
I had also heard Ms. Specht read from the book at its launching party at BookPeople several weeks ago. The event was held on a typical winter evening in Texas, where the after party moved over to an outdoor patio bar serving trailer food. Ms. Specht read an abridged version of the prologue for a packed crowd. It was mesmerizing. A slick and sensual love letter to Africa. I cannot say that I am a fan of contemporary fiction. I actually can’t say that I have often given it a chance, generally preferring to escape from anything that resembles my own reality and slip into a wholly imagined fantastical world, while I snuggle on the sofa at night. Science fiction and fantasy are my usual go to. Ms. Specht book, in contrast, is set in the recent past and mostly centers on Austin and the Texas Hill Country, where I now live. It is real, it deals with beautiful and painful life events that happen to real people in this very real world we all live in. It is not escapism. It is, however, one of the richest most delicious sensual experiences I have ever had from the written word.
Mary Helen Specht has found a way to weave the emotional inner life of her characters into the very texture of the world around them. There is a deep sense of place tugging against the weight of each individual self. Each gives shape and form to the other. This tension seems to pull from life an image of each single time and place, each person in each moment, floating like unique snowflakes suspended in the air not yet heavy enough to come falling to the ground. I am inspired to wax poetic, but in plainer words, I will say this; this book is on its surface extraordinarily beautiful in its sensual richness. Beneath that surface, it is a poem where threads of themes are woven into such a pattern that standing back and giving it space reveals more and more of its beautiful symmetry. It is a book to be enjoyed for its rich flavor and whose deeper more subtle beauty will also feed your soul.
I highly recommend this book, and if you want to add a bit more sensory exploration to the adventure, check out Mary Helen Specht’s post on Powell’s Books where she gives you a fabulous playlist of music important to the characters of the book.