In Mary Helen Specht's Elegiac Migratory Animals, College Friends Encounter Adulthood
One of the most striking passages of Mary Helen Specht's debut novel Migratory Animals comes in the final pages. After hundreds of pages in which she weaves together a story of friendships, family, love and loss, the novel's protagonist, Flannery, reflects on her attitude arriving in Nigeria as a scientist, and as Specht describes the scene in her elegiac style, she writes of her character that "She'd forgotten to expect joy."
The book pulsates with this wistful, hopeful feeling as it describes a group of college friends entering middle age. Although Flannery's story serves as the cornerstone of the novel, the wide-eyed narration spends time with every character in the book. From the young mother who feels disconnected from her children, to the architects whose young company is struggling through the recession, to Flannery's younger sister who's showing early signs of a disease that killed their mother, each character is fully sewn and then stitched into the book's story about a support system that's slowly unraveling.
"I always thought the book was a book about friendship and how it changes over time, but friendship is hard to write about," says Specht, who will be at The Wild Detectives in Dallas at 7 p.m. Thursday to read from her book. "I really wanted to explore a group of lives together."
Specht, a resident of Austin, worked on much of the novel during a Dobie-Paisano Writing Fellowship -- an experience mirrored in her character Alyce, who works on a tapestry at a ranch just outside of Austin. Many of the circumstances in the book are derived from Specht's experiences, lending her fiction a sense of verisimilitude that tugs the reader along. These are people you recognize, friendships you've had and places in Austin you might have visited. Oftentimes when reading the book, I found myself considering my relationships with friends I met in college only to lose touch, or conversations I've had with my sister, which to Specht is no surprise. "My favorite thing about books is the thing between what's on the page and what the reader brings from their own experiences," says Specht.
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Even Flannery, who returns to Texas when a scientific project she's working on in Nigeria loses funding, feels awfully familiar for a scientist who falls in love with a man in Africa while trying to fabricate snow. But Specht writes each of the characters and situations with a graceful proximity, in this case exploring the feelings she had after spending time in Nigeria studying literature as a Fulbright Scholar. And, as it turns out, the things she learned about narrative structure.
"In Nigerian literature and performances, there's not one sort of Western hero," Specht says. "There's a sense of group narrative, narrative of the tribe or the culture. I think I was interested in that in this group book."
The science behind the snowflakes? Specht learned that later. But Specht demonstrates an elegant ability to seamlessly blend research, story, character and metaphor, giving her book an incredible sense of humanity that makes it irresistible.
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