Story collection a poignant prose menagerie

KENDAL WEAVER For The Associated Press Published:

"Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories" (Scribner), by Megan Mayhew Bergman: Carnie, a talking parrot, is a character with a pivotal role in "Housewifely Arts," one of the short stories in this fine, moving debut collection by Megan Mayhew Bergman.

When the story opens, the narrator, a single mom with a 7-year-old son, is driving in search of Carnie, an African gray parrot that can perfectly imitate the voice of her mother, who once loved and cared for the bird.

The mother has died. The daughter wants to hear her voice just once more, even coming from the beak of Carnie, a smelly, fickle bird the daughter had loathed. Carnie even once bit her!

Fraught with unsettling memories, the daughter's search is for more than the parrot and her mother's voice. Like many of the narrators in this collection, the daughter is struggling for inner peace amid longings and tangled relationships, with parents and with parenthood, with men and with animals.

Animals, wild and domestic, figure prominently in almost every story, and some, like Carnie, hold the key to any resolution. There's Vito, a dog that is the sick but heroic bearer of hope in "The Two-Thousand-Dollar Sock," and Faye Done Away, an illegally imported Madagascar lemur -- she resembles "the love child of a stray cat and an opossum" -- that helps an alcoholic mom fight her demons in "Another Story She Won't Believe."

In the tense but tender "Night Hunting," a desperate white coyote with pups looms menacingly at a farmhouse as a daughter deals with a threat closer to the heart -- her mother's terminal breast cancer.

Many of the stories in "Birds of a Lesser Paradise" are told by a woman who has a young child or is expecting a baby, has lost a parent or is losing one; women whose similar voices weave a wistful narrative of desire and bereavement.

These are mostly plucky, caring women, the type who take in stray cats and have a faithful dog nearby. The omnipresent animals (according to a biographical note, Bergman helps her veterinarian husband run the family clinic) give the collection part of its distinct appeal.

The author, whose stories were anthologized in "New Stories From the South" in 2010 and "Best American Short Stories" in 2012, also draws scenes and characters with a quick, incisive touch. Almost all the narrators come alive. Their grief and anxieties are palpable. And most of their animals, like Faye Done Away, are lovable.

This is a poignant prose menagerie.

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Online:

http://www.mayhewbergman.com/