It is rare to find a book where characters are linked in pursuit of an idea or ideal rather than common experiences. But the central characters in John Gregory Brown’s “Audubon’s Watch” share one overwhelming desire.
They all want to discover the truth.
One wants to know the truth about birds. Another, the truth about human anatomy. And a third—the most mysterious and tragic character—wants to know the truth about herself.
We can never know the mind of this third character, Myra Gautreaux. The story is instead told by the other two first-person narrators: Myra’s husband, Dr. Emile Gautreaux, and the famous 19th century ornithologist, John James Audubon.
In fact the entire story takes place at a distance, in the form of recollection, decades after Myra’s death. Dr. Gautreaux, who has by now reached an advanced age, is summoned from Louisiana to New York by the wife of Audubon as he is confined to his deathbed. In the month that it takes for Dr. Gautreaux to arrive, much time is available for reflection about the events that brought these men together, and also about Myra, who remains present in their minds.
“It is not infirmity but passion that steers my mind’s course,” Audubon says as he considers his final wish to reunite with Dr. Gautreaux. “But how little I possess in these, my final days: a bed and blanket, a window, a cracked bowl and sponge. My thoughts careen from side to side, I know, and spill forth like baggage thrown from a bent-wheeled carriage, their contents dislodged and scattered, covered in dust. But that is not a mind in ruins.”
This book is an exquisite re-imagining of the life of artist and ornithologist John James Audubon, who died 1851. According to an online interview with the author, both Gautreaux characters are entirely fictional, as is much of the life of Audubon, who said little about why he was driven to travel great distances to study and paint an extraordinary variety of birds.
In this story, Audubon recounts how, many years before, as he found himself in Louisiana documenting birds of the region, he encountered an arresting young woman, Myra. Their brief and complicated rendezvous unnerves them both, and Audubon later meets the woman’s husband on the eve of a devastating storm and discovers that she is already dead. They spend a terrible night in vigil over her body. By morning, the husband and the artist are forever changed.
The search for truth is a common enough theme in literature, but this is not a typical examination. These characters, in a sense, are all seekers, all iconoclasts, driven to explore mysteries of a particular area of study as a way of framing deeper, more universal questions.
This is how Dr. Gautreaux explains his refusal to give up the reviled study of human anatomy:
“Resurrectionist. That appellation, like all the others, was meant as a term of disparagement, suggesting the blasphemy of such men as I—men who would interfere with Providence by exhuming those whose bodies had been assigned until the final judgment to God’s holy acre. But I embraced the term nevertheless, for I believed that I was indeed engaged in a resurrection—the resurrection of science in the face of ignorance and suspicion. Would God not smile upon such an endeavor? Would He not view the anatomist’s investigation as an act performed solely to proclaim His greater glory, to herald His sublime genius, to declare that if any man should doubt the intricate and brilliant design of the universe, he need only peer inside a human body, observe its organs, its skeleton, its bright channels of blood?”
The book’s beautiful, formal language creates a stark contrast to the frankness of the characters, and also the brutality of their disappointments. For truth, in any iteration, is not so easily uncovered. Each character, in his or her own way, is unrelenting in its pursuit, and also ill prepared for what is eventually found.
Each pays a high price. For Myra, the cost is her life.
Though it is framed as a kind of mystery, the book offers much more than the reward of its untangling. It is gorgeously written, much closer to poetry than prose—as is entirely evident in these quoted passages. It is also respectful of all characters, sensitive, honest, lively, and utterly original.
Like Audubon’s drawings, “Audubon’s Watch” is a the work of a soulful artist and an expert draftsman. It does not turn from the realities of life and death. Instead it clarifies and lifts them in beautiful passages of flight.