It could be a Zen koan. A woman on her deathbed bequeaths to her daughter all her journals on this condition: The daughter must not look at them until after the mother is gone. The daughter agrees. A week later, the mother dies. The daughter goes to the bookshelves and locates the clothbound volumes, all 54 of them, one for every year the mother lived. She begins pulling them, opening and paging through each in turn – only to find that every single one is blank.
This actually happened to Terry Tempest Williams, whose mother died of ovarian cancer when Williams was in her 20s, and the story provides the tantalizing opening of her new book, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. Now the same age that her mother was when she died, the author looks back through her life, working to discern meaning in the enigmatic act. In 54 short chapters, Williams ruminates, speculates, postulates and narrates, sometimes considering the central riddle obliquely, other times addressing it head-on.
She acknowledges at the outset that she can never know for sure what her mother intended, either by bestowing on her daughter such an uncanny gift or by purchasing the never-to-be-used journals in the first place. And Williams suggests the original surprise was painful. "The blow of her blank journals became a second death."
Yet she stops short of expressing anger at her mother and never takes up the question of whether her mother might have acted out of some anger of her own. Even when she does acknowledge, "My Mother's Journals are a cruelty," this comes sandwiched within a litany of one-line, italicized paragraphs that go on for pages, including among them, "My Mother's Journals are white flags of surrender," "My Mother's Journals are her 'Treasures of Truth,' " and "My Mother's Journals are a tattarrattat," each proposition effectively palliating the significance of the preceding ones.
This is true to the larger ethos of the book, which prefers dwelling among questions to finding answers. The discoveries Williams does make have an airy, abstract feel. Musing on the "relationship between Mother and water," she writes. "Water is essential. Mother is essential. The ocean as mother is mesmerizing in her power, a creative force that can both comfort and destroy."
Later, she likens language to birds. "Words fly out of our mouths like threatened birds. Once released, they may never return. If they do, they have chosen a home and the bird-words are calmed into an ars poetica."
In places, Williams, who is a poet as well as a decorated nonfiction writer and environmental activist, seems to follow her poetic impulses to the detriment of substantive meaning, as in these one-line, not-wholly-fathomable paragraphs: "What is birdsong but 'truth in rehearsal'?" "Milk and blood live together." "Devil spelled backward is Lived."
But when she turns her energies to storytelling, she can be riveting, whether describing her job as a 21-year-old biology teacher at a conservative school in Salt Lake City ("Did you know that the Devil is an environmentalist?" the principal inquires); giving testimony at congressional subcommittee hearings on wilderness conservation (a demoralizing experience in which one congressman makes a point of "yawning, coughing, anything to show his boredom and displeasure"); or linking the void of her mother's journals to such avant-garde works as John Cage's silent masterpiece 4'33" and the white-on-white canvasses of Robert Rauschenberg.
While I wished for more storytelling and fewer aphorisms throughout, there is one story Williams deliberately, even ostentatiously withholds. After explaining that she and her husband have recently made a home for a young man from Rwanda while he attends college, she writes, "Everything about my relationship with Louis has surprised me. Here is what I will tell you:" It's a statement she follows with 1½ blank pages.
It's as if she wanted to inflict on readers a deprivation parallel to that which her mother long ago inflicted on her – a not uninteresting choice; I rather admire its pluck. Yet it doesn't work, for the simple reason that we've heard so little about Louis that we don't much care.
When Women Were Birds is a half-beguiling book that ultimately remains as abstruse as its title.
When Women Were Birds:
Fifty-Four Variations on Voice
By Terry Tempest Williams
Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux
208 pages, $26.50
Leah Hager Cohen's most recent book is The Grief of Others.