20 May 2024

Review: The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager

The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager book cover

* Copy courtesy of Dzanc Books *

Our main character in The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager is a striving radio astronomer living in an unspecified future. This is a future where birds are extinct, you can no longer see stars from the surface of the earth and driverless buses are on the verge of replacing human ones.

A surrogate mother to triplets, she became their primary carer after the sudden death of their biological parents in an accident. Doing her best to raise the triplets despite lacking a guiding maternal instinct, I enjoyed her perspective:
"It's a bit unsettling, but children as a rule are unsettling, so I find a way to be both unsettled and also proud." Page 15
Also unsettling is the distant future the author creates, remarking early on:
"I believe when we reached the end of birds - birds, whose genetic code outlived dinosaurs - people realized we were at the precipice of a whole new paradigm of being." Page 27
Gosh I hope I never see that day. Taking place during this unspecified future is The Crisis, which isn't named or described but which divides the population in their isolated settlement into Yes/No camps. Our protagonist is undecided and the reader can readily substitute their own cause or crisis in order to relate to the narrative:
"I have a thought that perhaps we have mistakenly identified as sides what are in fact two responses to the same threat and if only we really sat down and talked about it, maybe cried about it, perhaps made art about it, we would come to realize this fact." Page 27
The Crisis and what it might symbolise is left to the individual reader, yet my perspective shifted from climate change to religion and our protagonist soon realises there could be more than one crisis. Ain't that the truth!

What is clear is our protagonist's love of stars and the night sky and her dream to become an astronomer. As the protagonist studies for the admittance test, there's plenty of space content. This has earned the phrase 'an elegy of space' in the blurb but let's hear from the woman herself:
"I will be a radio astronomer because I want it so much that the blood inside me aches. If you want something enough, in this world, in this town, I believe that you can get it. It's about hard work and real want. It's about never giving up." Page 39
Inspiring stuff! Just as our author is exploring on the page what life might be like in the future (no birds, no stars), our main character does so too. And while considering her three children could live beyond the end of this millennium, the reader is still not clear on when in time this novel is set.
"I would not understand who it was staring back at me and the fact of me being made of skin and bone and blood on a planet that rotates around a sun and in a world where most things crawl but some swim and billowing vapor lives overhead and there is divorce and soda and we move around in vehicles fuelled by liquified dinosaur and there are picnics but there is also murder, and chocolate but also hate." Pages 99-100
Reading The Avian Hourglass is an ethereal experience and I frequently found myself visualising the text, pausing to daydream or consider a description. This lead to a drifting attention and typically this signifies a lack of engagement but I wonder if that's what Drager intended.

The author seems to paint her worlds with wisps and suggestions, so readers who enjoy a fully fleshed out world with clearly defined parameters will find the time period, characters and world building terribly hard to pin down.

One chapter simply reads:
"There is a sign in my grandfathers' workshop that says this: 180 degrees is half a circle, but also a line." Page 156
The Avian Hourglass reminded me of the kind of D&Ms (deep and meaningful conversations) I had in my twenties and here Drager includes discussions about memory, grief, murmurations, the concentric circles of home, the ever changing globe, the march of technology and nostalgia.

It also reads like a fever dream at times, touching on the surreal, including: recurring déjà vu, a sentient planetarium who wants to see the night sky and the ghosts of birds.
"Luce says that my father believed we were all part of a very great fabricated reality, that we have been placed here strategically, as part of a way of knowing what kind of patterns humans will discover and what kind of patterns humans will invent." Page 160
As well as demonstrating for both sides of The Crisis on alternate days, our main character still faces the conundrum and it's one the reader should immediately relate to, but not necessarily have an answer for:
"The conundrum being how to get out of bed each day knowing all the cruelty and horror of the world is unfolding around you, knowing humans are hurting humans in small and large ways in the house next door, the next town over, across the ocean on another continent.
The conundrum being bringing three new humans into the world knowing there are problems in this life that will still exist long after they are dead and gone, problems they cannot escape, that they may participate in - unconsciously - because the problems are bound to the way the world has been shaped.
The conundrum being that there are no longer birds, that the stars are no longer visible." Page 191
In The Avian Hourglass, Drager is offering us a glimpse into a future I think we'd all like to avoid. A future devoid of stars and birds is inconceivable and I feel an uncomfortable tightness in my chest allowing myself to consider this reality just for a moment. The novel demonstrates moments of beauty, love and connection in the world while simultaneously serving as a warning to the modern reader.

This is my second book from this author, having read The Archive of Alternate Endings last year and The Avian Hourglass by Lindsey Drager is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

My Rating:

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