I bring you a book that is… well, special doesn’t cover it. I’m not sure it will the kind of book many of you would enjoy, but it raises important questions, and it is so unusual, I had to share it. Oh, and those covers!
Chouette by Claire Oshetsky (@oshetsky)
“Claire Oshetsky’s novel is a marvel: its language a joy, its imagination dizzying.” —Rumaan Alam, New York Times bestselling author of Leave the World Behind
An exhilarating, provocative novel of motherhood in extremis
Tiny is pregnant. Her husband is delighted. “You think this baby is going to be like you, but it’s not like you at all,” she warns him. “This baby is an owl-baby.”
When Chouette is born small and broken-winged, Tiny works around the clock to meet her daughter’s needs. Left on her own to care for a child who seems more predatory bird than baby, Tiny vows to raise Chouette to be her authentic self. Even in those times when Chouette’s behaviors grow violent and strange, Tiny’s loving commitment to her daughter is unwavering. When she discovers that her husband is on an obsessive and increasingly dangerous quest to find a “cure” for their daughter, Tiny must decide whether Chouette should be raised to fit in or to be herself—and learn what it truly means to be a mother.
Arresting, darkly funny, and unsettling, Chouette is a brilliant exploration of ambition, sacrifice, perceptions of ability, and the ferocity of motherly love.
About the author:
Claire Oshetsky is a novelist whose writing has appeared in Salon, Wired, and the New York Times. She lives with her family in California. Chouette draws on her own experiences of motherhood.
In her own words, in Goodreads:
Shy and nocturnal. Autistic. Demi woman. Avian.
I participate on Goodreads as the fashionably bearded “lark benobi” and you’re most welcome to come on over to my lark benobi page to follow my reviews and talk books with me.
If you have an interest in the music mentioned in Chouette, here is a playlist with most of it. The works by Patricia Taxxon are only available on the indie music site Bandcamp: Tiny hears “Cambria” by Patricia Taxxon when she runs into the gloaming as a child, and she hears “The Stars in My Head” by Patricia Taxxon at the end of her journey.
‘lark benobi’ is going to continue to be the place I hang out on goodreads, but since people are starting to follow me over here too I thought I’d use my ‘Claire Oshetsky’ zone to recommend books that people might like if they liked Chouette. Let’s call them “Bizarro Books.” Happy reading!
Thanks to NetGalley and Virago for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
What a novel! I must confess I read a comment about this novel, saw the cover, and being crazy about anything owl I had to request it. It seems I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t resist the attraction of the cover, because many reviews mention it as well. Curiously, although the two covers of the novel I’ve seen are quite different (both have owls on the cover, but that’s the only similarity), they are fascinating and beautiful, each in its own way.
The brief description of the book made me think of a French film I saw quite a few years back (2009), called Ricky, directed by François Ozon, about a baby who grows wings and the effect that has on everybody around him, but… This novel is not like that. At all.
It is very difficult to review this novel because I am not sure how to classify it, and although that is often said, in this case, I believe it truly defies classification. Amazon.com lists it under three categories: Humorous literary fiction, contemporary literary fiction, and women’s literary fiction. I have also seen people referring to its style as “magic realism”, a category that seems to have many different definitions and conceptions. Having grown up reading Latin-American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, I think of the genre as one where the story takes place in a world that is realistically rendered, but there are some events or characters that seem impossible, peculiar, or even magical, although that fact (that sometimes might be related to specific beliefs of the community, legends, stories) does not alter or transform totally the nature of the world. It is not a world of fantasy. It isn’t a story where somebody sees, does things, or has special powers that nobody else believes in, either. The whole world accepts what is happening as if it was the norm, and that creates quite a strange effect. (As I said, this is my understanding of magic realism, but not everybody thinks the same). With regards to the other categories suggested… Well, humorous fiction might apply, as there are some scenes that are so over the top and cartoonish, that although they are usually also very dark, they are funny. But there is so much disturbing and weird in the book, that I think most people wouldn’t think of it as a straight humorous read. There’s definitely no light humour here.
Literary fiction seems to fit well. This is not an easy book to read (it is quite short, but it makes one stop and pause often, and it’s difficult not to wonder and ponder at what might be going on), and the writing is precious, using sometimes pretty unusual and even out of place words (gendarme for a book set in California, for example), plenty of references to music (classical, contemporary, music from films, indie music…), and the main protagonists, both Tiny and Chouette, are women (well, or a woman and an owl baby, but a female owl baby), and a lot of the book centres around the notion of motherhood, educating and taking care of a child, a mother’s love, family and family relationships… There is something timeless about the book, and although it is not a piece of historical fiction, other than because references to artificial intelligence and to some of the other suggested therapies bring to mind our era, the story could be set years before or after, and it wouldn’t feel out of place (or rather, it would feel as out of place as it is in the here and now).
There are plenty of strange things happening in this book, but there seem to be two interpretations of what is going on. One, is what Tiny, the mother thinks. The other, what everybody else (or almost everybody else) thinks. Is this, therefore, a case of an extremely unreliable narrator? Some reviewers seem to think so and talk about Tiny suffering from some sort of psychotic break following her pregnancy and the birth of her child. Puerperal psychosis is a well-known diagnosis, as is post-partum depression. Because the story is told by Tiny (we never learn if she has another name) in the second person —as if this were a book she was writing to Chouette, her baby— it is possible that all the events she narrates, which seem to confirm that her baby is an owl baby (more owl than baby) were just in her imagination. (If you want to know what kind of things I’m talking about, I don’t want to go into a lot of detail, because some will probably be disturbing to readers, and I don’t want to spoil the story, but I’ll mention: the child hunting for small animals and feeding on them; attacking people, not only unknown people but also her own relatives and her parents as well; the fact that she never achieves her milestones and doesn’t develop as a “normal” baby; she can’t talk; she doesn’t walk and doesn’t seem to have normal limbs… There are also weird things going on in the house and some events from Tiny’s childhood that seem straight out of a dark and Gothic fairy tale, rather than a realistic novel, which also has a bearing on the story).
The rest of the world thinks that the baby might suffer from a metabolic and/or genetic condition affecting her growth and her development, and her father, who is the main advocate of such view, insists on trying to find a cure. (Of course, if we believe Tiny’s version, Chouette is not really the daughter of Tiny’s husband. But, I won’t reveal anything else). This causes some comedic moments, and some pretty tragic ones as well.
Is the whole novel a metaphor for what pregnancy and bringing up a baby, especially a baby with diverse needs, might be like? Tiny categorizes children (and by extent, people) into either dog-babies (those who are gregarious, love to play, chat, socialize, and achieve all their milestones at the required moments), and owl-babies (wild creatures who follow their own rhythm, don’t conform, and are not terribly sociable). The author’s biography and her comments seem to fit that interpretation, and there are moments in the book that felt quite recognisable to me. I’ve never had a child or been pregnant, so I’m not talking from direct experience, but from what friends who have children have told me, and what I have observed. There is much of the insecurity of not knowing if your approach to bringing up your child is right or not, of the exhaustion of having to be there twenty-four hours a day, or not being able to understand what is wrong and having to second-guess. Of feeling a fierce love and total frustration both at the same time. There are readers who subscribe to that view as well, and even reviewers who have strongly identified with the story. The fact that the author describes herself as “autistic” and “avian” seems to point in that direction too but… I am not sure I have decided what possible interpretation I favour, if I want to decide, or even if I need to.
Whichever interpretation readers give to the story, there is plenty to make people think. One of the themes that particularly grabbed me was the debate between Tiny and her husband as to the education and/or “treatment” for their daughter. Should they try to find a way for her to conform and become more like other children so that she can fit in her family and the society all around, or does she have the right to be herself and it is up to others to accept her and make her feel welcome, no matter how different from the norm she might be? What is “normal” after all, and who gets to decide and set the standards? This is one of the big questions that affect many aspects of our lives, in some hotly debated, highly controversial, and far from resolved, even in this day and age. There is no easy answer, but anything that can make us consider things from a different perspective is welcome.
If you want some facts to help you decide if you’d enjoy reading this novel, the book’s writing is gorgeous. I have mentioned the peculiar usage of words and the richness of the language, and although the images used can sometimes be extremely violent and disturbing, there are others that are breathtakingly beautiful. No matter what one might think of the story, or how puzzled one might feel by what is going on, there are paragraphs that I’d happily frame and hang on my wall.
Some random examples. Please, remember that this comes from an ARC copy, so there might be small changes in the final version.
Here, Tiny is watching her husband, before the baby is born:
I love to watch him shuffle the cards. I love the way he can fit himself into the world so rightly. He’s like a card in the deck that he has just squared up. I’m more like a card that somebody left out in the rain.
An example of humour (oh, and her husband’s family is a caution):
I’m the outlier. I’m known in the family as the tiny, fragile, photogenic little wife. My mother-in-law tends to seat me at the children’s table for family gatherings. I don’t think of it as a slight. It’s more like an oversight. My mother-in-law sees right over me. She is six feet tall and never looks down.
And last, but not least:
The days keep coming. You keep on living. Inside me is a damp and complex geography, a sweaty expanse of mixed feelings, uncertainties, and regret; and all of those feelings spread out from my body like the vast Serengeti, full of dark and danger. The edges blur. The truth is, I have no idea how to be your mother.
It is difficult to talk about the ending because it is left to one’s interpretation and to which version of the story we are going with. For me, it felt hopeful, but that is just my opinion. Oh, for those who love music, the author includes the playlist for the novel, so that is a definite plus.
Another random thought is that the author mentions on her Goodreads page, that she will include recommendations of books she thinks people who’ve enjoyed Chouette might like, and she refers to them as “bizarro books”. I have read reviews of some books that fall under that category, but I haven’t read any (they did remind me too much of some of the things I heard when I worked as a psychiatrist,, but I might try in the future), so this might be something to take into account as well, as that might offer another possible reading of this book.
Who would I recommend this book to? That’s not an easy question to answer. I agree with other readers that this would not be on my list of recommended novels for future mothers or those with very small children. On the other hand, mothers with a dark or alternative sense of humour, and whose children are fairly grown-up, might appreciate it. Readers who are weary of explicit violence, cruelty to animals, and those who prefer a straightforward narrative, should keep away from this book. But those who are happy to explore, are looking for a new voice, don’t mind weird and strange stories, love bizarro books (probably), and appreciate lyrical and gorgeous writing, should give it a go. See what you think. I’m sure it won’t leave you indifferent.
I found this review on Goodreads that provides extra information about the author, and you might find it interesting as well:
Thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author for this unique book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and keep smiling and safe!