Ph.D. candidate BEN DAVIES and his former student NINA ALEXANDER have been dating for a year when, on the verge of moving in together, Nina shares her biggest secret: Her dog, SID, talks to her. Not metaphorical talking, but literal, extended conversations. Overwhelmed, Ben ends the relationship. Songs By Honeybird opens two weeks after their breakup and follows Ben and Nina, in alternating points of view, for the next five months.
Before Sid came into her life, Nina thought the universe was rational and scientific. Once she begins to hear Sid talk there are two options: Either her dog is actually talking, or she is crazy. So she accepts that he talks and listens to his stories of past lives, including Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha. Her conversations with Sid guide Nina through the challenges of her mid-twenties, as she comes to terms with the father who died when she was four, and questions if she can ever have a real relationship. How honest she can be with any new partner? She also starts to wonder if her father’s fatal car accident was an accident at all, and visits the crash site for the first time. The possibility that he deliberately drove off the road makes her wonder if he had mental health problems of his own—does she have some genetic predisposition toward hearing voices in her head? And then Sid disappears toward the end of the semester, shortly after Nina confronts him about the family that Siddhartha abandoned when he began his search for enlightenment.
Ben is entering the final year of his Ph.D. program at Georgia State. His dissertation examines the career and legacy of HARLAN HONEYBIRD, a songwriter and guitarist from Macon. In the mid-1960s Harlan, the son of a failed and racist politician, led an integrated rock band—perhaps the first multi-racial rock band in the South, since they predated the Allman Bros. They recorded two albums before Harlan and the band’s African American drummer, NATE WILLIAMS, died in a fire. Ben manages to track down Honeybird’s surviving member, DARLENE HONEYBIRD, who was Harlan’s sister as well as the band’s bass player. Darlene eventually tells Ben the truth about the band’s songs. They had all been written by Nate, who was also her boyfriend—something Harlan discovered just before he and Nate died in the fire.
Ben and Nina meet unexpectedly for the first time since their breakup late in the novel. After some awkwardness they catch up on what they have been through over the last few months, and manage to help each other resolve some of their issues. Nina tells Ben he does not need to be disappointed that he misunderstood the value of Harlan’s legacy; he just needs to reframe the dissertation as Nate’s story. And when Ben hears that Nina and Howard are going to perform at an Open Mic, and she is having trouble finding the right song, he shares an unreleased Honeybird song, written by Nate for Darlene. The novel ends with the performance of the song, and Nina listening to the final note fade out.