Winner, 2020 IPPY Silver Medal for Literary Fiction
Matthew Reilly is a busy academic, a lonely priest haunted by secrets. Young Alison is the shy and devoted keeper of Daisy, a falcon which suffered an accident and can no longer fly. The three of them meet in a Boston parish, but Matt has forgotten a momentary but disturbing meetup with Alison, homeless eight years earlier in Toronto. Close to exhaustion, he’s forced to reflect on what’s become of his life, including the loss of a son that no one knew he’d fathered. Alison and Matt had a fateful encounter during her homeless period, but Matt doesn’t connect that frail teenager with the healthy young woman she’d become. It’s left to Alison to uncover Matt’s past and for Matt to come to terms with it.
“The spirit of brokenness and its redemption lie at the heart of Carole Giangrande’s brilliant, at times shattering, novel. Here, human brutality gives way to an abiding hope in the unseen order that binds all of creation, in a physical world at once sacred and profane. A glorious expression of Giangrande’s deeply spiritual vision, The Tender Birds is a rare and riveting fusion of ‘the poetry of things imagined,’ gorgeously distilled prose, urgency, and exquisite plotting—a literary page-turner of the highest order. I’m in awe of Giangrande’s work and the reassuring wisdom that suffuses it, wisdom our world badly needs right now.”
—Carol Bruneau, author of A Circle on the Surface, A Bird on Every Tree, These Good Hands and several other novels.
“With breathtaking language and gentle insights, this quietly beautiful book gives us good people struggling with the mute loneliness imposed by secrets. Through her characters’ love for that most ancient of birds—the falcon—Giangrande takes us into the mysteries of faith, forgiveness and the search for peace. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, a joy to read, the novel lingers long after its close.”
— Irene Guilford, author of Waiting For Stalin To Die
“Not magical realism, but piercingly real magic; wounds and revelations are Carole Giangrande’s canvas. An award-winning novelist, Giangrande moves her vivid characters deftly through darkness and light, chiaroscuro. I found it hard to close the last page on people and birds who entered my life through this tender, poignant novel.”
—Mary Corkery, author of Simultaneous Windows
It was 2011. more than a year had passed since Daisy had come into her life, and eight years had fled since Gavin’s savage attack. Her sorrow was a vanished river running deep underground, its current strong enough to shape her inner world. She missed her lost father who was still a living presence, while her mother had become nothing more than a lifelong struggle with forgiveness. Of those who realized what had happened to her, all of them lived in Toronto—Maggie, her therapist, and the parish priest who had offered her compassion.
It was because of them that she stitched together a garment of faith, sufficient to warm her in the chill of life. In the Cross, she saw an image of the pain that never ended on this broken earth, and in the blessings of life and beauty, she saw rescue. Her father had believed that in the mystery of this earth, all God’s creatures were beloved. She took comfort in that.
Now in her twenties, she was a child with a stone heart; her insides burned with shock, as if she’d been tampered with by a wet finger in a light socket. She sensed that she would never grow beyond this, that she conveyed to others—especially Cam and Father Matt—that there was something wrong with her. She tried to make friends, but beyond Daisy, she had no desire for a life companion. It was spring now, but she felt brittle, like fine porcelain veined with cracks, easy to smash with a careless brush of the hand.
Now, after all of that, they were going to close the church.
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Re: St. Bart’s closing
Date: 1 March 2011
You may not know this, but St. Bart’s is closing. They lost a lot of parishioners when street people started coming to the church for Mass and the parish ran out of money. I should never have taken Daisy into the park because that’s how the whole thing started. I used to go with her to sit and visit with the homeless people along with some parishioners and then Matt came and celebrated Mass with them. He did it all last summer and into the fall, and when it got cold, they came into the church. Father Matt is devastated.
He does not look well.
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Re: St. Bart’s closing
Date: 1 March 2011
Alison, I hadn’t heard about St. Bart’s. You’re not at fault for this. You and Matt were doing something good in the park. I know it’s sad, but the heart can only break in so many pieces. Be gentle with yourself. btw, I am going to be in Boston for a series of weekends in April and May, teaching an ecotheo course at Boston College.
Hope we can touch base.
Not Her Fault
there was a framed photo in Matt’s office that he prized as one of his favourites. It showed him standing beside his mother on his ordination day. He looked young and confident, his gaze alight with hope, a radiant second caught by the camera, a lightness he prayed would not be tarnished by the passing years. He did some counselling out of his office at St. Bart’s, and he put the photo there to remind him of his calling, of the reality of hope for himself and others. Alison had commented on it more than once. “We’re so brave when we’re young,” she’d said. Unable to sleep, Matt found himself reflecting on the photo. He wasn’t sure how to think about the closing of St. Bart’s. He was only there to help out, and then he found himself entangled in Alison’s haunted world, in her wayfarer’s walk with Daisy that had led him into the park. He wondered if it were possible that Alison had dragged him—and the whole parish, in fact—into the net of a waking dream that possessed her. Pretty outrageous speculation, he realized. Yet it was not impossible to consider the power of that woman who, as Father Ron had reported, had drawn a following of so many parishioners, her and her Pied Piper falcon. He’d gone along with it; they all had.
Except that it wasn’t her fault. He and Ron had liked the thought of community involvement and the big-deal buzzwords of “inclusiveness,” and “reaching out to the marginalized,” and Alison (with Daisy attached) had approached her park companions with a natural grace that captivated everyone. And in the end, it was Alison who’d confronted his flagging grip on reality, his thought that he might live among the homeless, that he might minister to them. He would never forget the glint of steel in her voice.
“There’s no good way to live on the street,” she said.
“Not among the poor?”
“Not among insults and very sick men and women. No.”
“I feel at home with them,” said Matt.
“That is not the same as living among them. I will do nothing to support this,” said Alison. Her voice sliced the air, her eyes flashing with a bright, metallic fury. Matt had never seen her defiant, never imagined she had it in her.
“That man with the wine—John—he’s full of contempt for you.”
“Not for me. For the priest who molested him.”
”But you’re not that priest, and there’s no reason to let him poison you,” she said. “No one else will drink that wine.”
Matt was silent, and then he spoke. “I will continue to say Mass in the park,” he said.
Alison was fine with that.
John is full of contempt for you. He couldn’t deny it.
Yet he felt drawn to the men and women on the Common. John, Bill, Pete, Tommy, Flora. He didn’t know why; it was as if he had encountered them in some past life, a thought quite foreign—and not at all agreeable—to his priestly training. It felt as if these people were tapping on his shoulder, trying to tell him he’d neglected something, only he could not for the life of him name what it was; nothing more than one of those frustrating thoughts that circles the drain and slips through the strainer of old age. He would give this painful occlusion of his soul to God, he thought. Their suffering and his, held in the blessing of stale bread and sour wine. Their hope of rebirth, drunk to the dregs.
He belonged there.
Matt said mass in the park the following morning, and as he prayed, he looked out over the edge of the crowd and saw a slender, bearded man with ebony skin and a red-haired woman wheeling a baby stroller. Then he remembered the email he’d neglected to answer: “Dear Matt, I have obtained a position teaching theology at Boston College and Natalie and I will be moving back here.” He had received it … when? Six weeks, six months ago? He couldn’t remember.
He did not look or feel well, and he didn’t want them to spot him. He hoped they’d move on, and they continued on their walk.
When Mass was done, and he had drunk the remains of John’s wine, he looked up to see Elias, a tall tree-trunk of a man leaning into the bright sky, and Natalie, red-gold hair undulating in the breeze, her body like a dancer’s, as if he were viewing her reflection in water, and then a child in a stroller. They said hello to him, looked at him with concern in their eyes, joined him on the bench long enough for Natalie to introduce their six-month-old son. His name was James Andre, after her late uncle and his partner—and, according to Nigerian custom, a repertoire of family names were also attached to the common ones, so that he became the engine of his father’s clan moving through time, transporting its cargo of riches to America. Matt did not know what to say. He felt part of that clan, in memory of the man who was his son.
Elias gave him a card with his address and phone number, and they asked what he was up to, and he told them, “A new ministry.” Elias patted his shoulder. “Father, you have chosen the narrow path,” he said. “Do not tire yourself.”
Natalie asked him for his email address, and he wrote it down, relieved that he was composed enough to do her that courtesy. “You must come for supper, just like old times,” said Natalie, the cook, whose uncle had slept with the man who’d turned out to be his rejected son.
Natalie, whose worried face said more than her words.