Songbirds & Stray Dogs is an astonishing accomplishment in a debut novel and there is no surprise that this book won the ‘Next Generation Indie Book Awards for best novel‘ because it is a scintillating book, one that grips the reader and takes them on an unforgettable encounter, one which you will leave battered, bruised, scarred and broken. The scars reminding you long after reading that you have indeed just been run through the mill and the emotional trauma that Lucas inflicts in abundance on her captive audience.
There is heartache and sorrow, despair, hope, loss, the quest for change and the longing to belong. It’s heart-wrenching and downright masterful stuff and I’m not afraid to say that Lucas moved me to tears on a few occasions, I can’t say that I’ve ever read a book that moved me so emotionally as Songbirds & Stray Dogs – and that my friends is the mark of a masterful storyteller and one that you need to check out, because this book I can honestly say will be up there as a best book of the year contender for me and one that I will continue to shout about for many a year to come!
Huge thanks also to Well Read Beard for this recommendation as I probably wouldn’t have come across it otherwise – give the man a follow here – you won’t regret his insight and might also find some other cool titles to pick up too! But, with that recommendation over with, on with the show as they say…
The story starts with Jolene a young woman who has been abandoned and let down her whole short life. Abandoned at a young age by her mother, left by the father of her unborn child and she’s soon to be abandoned and thrown out in to the cold by her Aunt Rachel the sole person charged with looking after her – her aunt writing her off as a lost cause and damaged goods, fearing that Jolene was turning out just like her mother.
Jolene has known nothing but the shocking pain of abandonment and the aching loss of her adolescence. Of the constant let downs and misplaced trust in her fellow human beings. Jolene is one of those people, that I know you might have seen, the type of person that pain and suffering are attracted to, that no matter what they try to do they can’t break free. Pain always finds its way back however-much she tries to free herself. Each time she thinks she’s on the way to something new she is reunited with pain and abandonment time-and-time again.
Jolene is like a dog that’s beaten by its master a glutton for punishment, she can’t seem to leave this place of despair and if she could, this sadness would most probably follower her and plague her with its suffocating presence wherever she might roam. But Jolene has got a fighters spirit and wants to try, even though she is on the ropes a small coal burns deep within her, pushing her to fight ’till her last breath and somewhere along the line she might find the peace the hope and the belonging that she’s been searching for her whole life.
What I enjoyed about Songbirds & Stray Dogs was the attention Lucas paid to developing her characters, they are what makes this such a powerful story. I don’t think I’ve read a book where I cared so much for the outcomes for the cast of characters within as much as I did with Songbirds & Stray Dogs. I was compelled to read and hope for the main protagonists, and I was also at points despising some of the peripheral secondary characters. One in particular I’d go as much as saying that I wanted to see the bastard bleed at one point (I hated that son-of-a-bitch with such passion – and I don’t use the word hate often, but here it is the only word that works). I love my gritty realism and this book is born out of that stuff, the characters are broken and gritty and for me that’s what makes the story all the more powerful; these broken souls wandering from place to place like ghosts looking for somewhere to finally settle down to haunt to live out their days in peace. The character work that Lucas has been able to achieve here is remarkable for a debut author and I would say is reminiscent of the masterful work of Donald Ray Pollock, Patrick deWitt and the Coen Brothers – what with their believability and depth and their brokenness and gritty realism that Lucas deftly covers her story in.
As the story progresses we are introduced to Chuck, another broken soul and our other main protagonist – I loved Chuck, I loved his aura his way of being, his openness and his hopefulness. But I also loved the darker side to his character, the pieces of his life he is trying to hide and run from, again another broken individual for us to champion. You see Chuck is looking after his sisters son Cash (she is out of the picture – but is also a key driving force for the story later) he’s an older man, thrust into caring for a school aged child, he can’t fathom if what he’s doing is right, but he’s sure doing a better job than his sister Cora would be doing right now. The dynamic between these two is touching and very well rendered, causing the reader to fall under Lucas’ spell at creating rich characters and producing a story that is unforgettable.
What I enjoyed about Lucas’ work is that the book is split into four parts, the first part centres around Jolene and the chapters are significant dates in her life. Then when we are introduced to Chuck in part two, the same dates (significant dates) are rehashed here – showing a sort of link or connection at this early stage between these two protagonists. Then part three is when Jolene and Chuck meet, their lives intersecting and joining, how they mesh with one another in this new place how their lives connect. And the final part is the culmination of the story, how their lives move on from where they are now and the hope for tomorrow.
Megan Lucas is a stunning writer, she held me captive the whole way through Songbirds & Stray Dogs, tossed me here and there, beat me down, gave me hope and then snatched it away (on many an occasion), she singlehandedly made me a blubbering mess and I hate her for that, but I also love her for that too! I would liken Lucas to a cat playing, teasing with an injured bird, she’d hit me and I’d take it, she’d play with me, jabbing and prodding at my thoughts and emotions and in the end she’d just ravaged me and leave me to my wounds, she destroyed me. And I’m grateful at being destroyed by her words.
There are moments in this book that pull at the heartstrings until they unravel like a ball of yarn, there are times of despair and suffocating loss, but I feel the biggest thread running through this book is the quest for wholeness and belonging. Songbirds & Stray Dogs displays a rich tapestry of emotions, ones that when finishing you can’t easily put back in the bottle because Lucas has smashed that bottle to pieces and all you have is the wreckage that is left.
Songbirds & Stray Dogs is not for the weak of heart and is an exceptional piece of storytelling. It’s unlike anything I have read in recent years, an extraordinary, breathtaking encounter that pulls no punches and leaves the reader changed all for the better for having encountered Lucas’ beautiful debut. This is a five star review and one that I will seriously be championing you all to purchase!
Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. So above all else, be kind.
Songbirds & Stray Dogs is published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company and is available here.
Meagan Lucas’ recent work appears in: The Same, The New Southern Fugitives, and Still: The Journal. She won the 2017 Scythe Prize for fiction. Meagan teaches composition at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, and is the Fiction Editor at Barren Magazine. Born and raised in Northern Ontario, Canada, she now lives in the mountains of North Carolina with her husband and their two small children.
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
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