Readers have an elevated view of the events in Cary Fagan’s A Bird’s Eye.
“Over streets, over the buildings of the university with the zigzag pattern on their roofs, over the playing fields towards the downtown.”
And, yet, readers glimpse, in the opening chapters, all the characters necessary for an understanding of Benjamin Kleeman.
The novel from an ant’s view would have been something else entirely.
Surely hundreds of pages could have been devoted to the story of the young woman in the first chapter, born with a birthmark on her face in the exact shape of a handprint.But in A Bird’s Eye, this woman’s story is told in a few hundred words not pages; she is Benjamin’s mother, and this glimpse is of her life in Italy, of her birthmark. (There is another significance to birds in this story, but one of the sweetest discoveries for readers.)
Other characters of importance are introduced with the same swift direct strokes. The city of Toronto, as it existed in the 1930s, is one of those characters.
The Davenport Ridge, the Island ferry, the lakeshore, Yonge Street, Mansfield Street, St. Clair, Trinity United Church, the tracks near the Exhibition Grounds, the coffee shop on Dupont, Eatons, the Don River, the Rosedale Ravines: the city breathes beneath the bird’s flight.
“Sometimes I went to the library, the big branch with the high arched windows at Gladstone Avenue, where i would sit at a table and read from a book that I pulled off the shelf. […] But what I liked to do best was to walk the city streets, sometimes far from my own neighbourhood.”
Ben is journeying far from his neighbourhood in more than one way. His journey began with a backstory (“I Am Conceived” is Chapter Five), and it’s clear that, despite the spare prose and style, the background matters. In only a few pages, years pass. Boundaries expand, experiences accumulate.
“And although I believed that most, if not all, of human knowledge was contained within the walls of the Gladstone Library, I doubted that the sort of knowledge I sought could be found in books.”
Ben strikes out, personally (oh, the lovely Corinne, and what worlds she reveals, through her own self and the experiences her father carries with a legacy of the Civil War and his work as a Pullman Porter) and professionally.
For Ben goes to the library to learn about conjuring. The art of misdirection. The gift of creating something where it appeared that nothing existed.
In this sense, a magician and a writer are not so different. Ben as reader of magic books is enthralled: “At the desk, I turned one page after another. What I saw was too wonderful, and too much to take in.”
Readers of this slim novel, which one could read in an hour in a coffee shop on Dupont or a bench on the Davenport Ridge looking over the city below, are enthralled also.
A Bird’s Eye is the story of a young man, whose perspective on the world is changing rapidly as he learns and grows. It is an ordinary story that pulses with unexpected intensity. (For although the scenes are brief and viewed from above, some of them resonate with surprising power.)
“Even more, what a conjuror needs is for himself to believe. To believe that what he does has a deeper meaning.”
Cary Fagan’s A Bird’s Eye is a small volume when viewed from above, nestled in the reader’s hand; but, this storyteller conjures up a good trick and makes a big story out of a small book.