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Chouette by Claire Oshetsky

It is hard to know where to start a review of this extraordinary book.

That is not a phrase I use often, extraordinary. In this case it feels right; this book is unique. Also I am left with the sense that there is so much more to absorb and so many more levels which have yet to reveal themselves. I am sure that you could put forward a dozen interpretations of Chouette and still find some more tomorrow. That is part of the attraction. A book you can leave to mellow. Come back to, see and experience again.

For this review to make any sense, you need a brief snippet about the story. Tiny is a classical cellist married to a lawyer. She becomes pregnant, with an owl-baby. She has made love with her owl-lover, who is a woman. Her husband, as many would, dismisses this talk of an owl-baby as the result of the stress of pregnancy. The baby is born, and really is an owl, which the parents try to raise like a child. The mother is all love and understanding, while the father is all about medical intervention and correcting. The push and pull between these two opposites is at the core of the novel, providing the tension. The struggle between nurture and nature. That is the story in a nutshell.

I began by approaching my review from the aspect of themes. At the core this is about motherhood, the incredible bond that forms between mother and child and which fathers are ill-equipped to understand, let alone describe. It is instinctive, and that develops into another theme, animal instincts. Then we have those that want to fix and interfere in the development of a child; fathers, extended families, doctors and religion.

Other themes; wild nature, diverse sexuality and gender. Finally fantasy, fairy tale and metaphor. The land of gloaming. Oh, and don’t forget the music. Lots to unpick.

But where to place this novel, how to assign some sort of category (beyond extraordinary)? There I start to struggle, because we are in the realm of fantasy or fairy tale, but the problem is accentuated because this feels so real and normal, so true to life, that you stop looking for the metaphors and hidden meanings and simply accept everything at face value, as it comes at you. As if to prove the point, here Tiny is at the annual gathering of her husband’s family:

'It’s time for me to be in the kitchen with the other wives, who are all busy with their little tasks, shredding cabbage and slicing beefsteak tomatoes into slabs and so on. Now and then the other wives try to engage me in conversation. But these other wives speak in concrete word-bricks, whereas I prefer to speak in metaphor: That way, no logic can trap me, and no rule bind me, and no fact can limit me or decide for me what’s possible. The downside of my communication approach is that it makes the yabber-yabber of everyday conversation a challenge for me, so I tend to be quiet, mostly, at these family gatherings.'

As Tiny’s pregnancy develops she takes on a strong unpleasant aroma, a fecund gamey smell which she tries to remove with multiple baths. ‘I’m going to be a mother. I’ve accepted it. My body is riparian. I’m filled with growing things.’

Here is an example of the wonderful descriptions which make this book come to life:

'That night I wake up with a start when the owl-baby unmoors itself from the womb and begins swimming inside me with muscular ability. The owl-baby is in its early Cambrian period, but it’s far enough along to be classified as Chordata. Its flippers are powerful. It’s still more fish than bird. It begins to explore the world inside me with bacchanalian abandon. When the owl-baby swims behind my eye and commands me to open it, I discover that we can see in the dark. Instead of the black void, I see photons spinning out in all directions, and the owl-baby cries out in delight, and so do I.'

And then here comes the crux of the problem for Tiny; should she do things which might change Chouette, or allow here to always be herself:

'Won’t there be many times in your owl-baby’s life when she will need to defend

herself against the dog-people? [her name for the non-owl folk] Do you really want to quash that survival instinct in her, and teach her nuance, when she’s surrounded by people who see the world in black and white and who look at your girl and see a monster? When the world is full of those who see her as a creature to be shot on sight, or, at best, to be put down humanely? There are people out there, after all, who think that the only good owl-baby is a dead owl-baby – do you really want your girl to lie down and accept it, when they come for her?'

There are numerous visits to different doctors, those that Tiny’s husband thought might be able to fix the owl-baby, turn it into something that might be called human. These visits often end in injuries for someone, scratches and bites from dealing with a wild animal. Listening to the author talk about her book, she described the real visits she undertook as being more focused on making other people comfortable rather than doing anything for her daughter. As she rightly observed, ‘There are no easy answers in this book.’

I must not forget to mention the music in the book. As events unfold, Tiny is reminded of various pieces of music; they are playing somewhere or they are echoing around her head. There are many references and it would be wonderful to read the book again and listen to each musical piece where they are mentioned. The author has created a playlist on Spotify, collecting them all together to make such a feat possible. They begin with Arvo Pärt, Spiegel im Spiegel, a duet for violin and piano which is one of the most calming and moving pieces of music I have ever heard. Sitting in the truth behind the story is the author’s own daughter, her own owl-baby, who has also composed some pieces mentioned in the novel. They can be found on Bandcamp.

Nor must we forget that there is humour in here too. It is OK to laugh at some of what is happening, and even twenty years after my own daughter was born, I still remember the fixation with developmental targets and an area on the charts called the 95th percentile. So I especially enjoyed:

'Nowhere in the development targets have I ever read: Feeds self by killing small domesticated animals’.

To summarise, I have tried to give a flavour of the book, because I think lots of people should read this, and I encourage you to. The author is a reader, a wide-ranging and sometimes unexpected reader, who will pull you into this story with her use of language. By the end, who knows where you will be? Enraptured, excited, muddled or confused. Where ever it is, you will be better off for being there.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Virago Press


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