ChouetteChouette by Claire Oshetsky
My rating: 4/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

even though i had already read and enjoyed The Book of Dog, a novel by the same-brain/different nom de plume as this one, i had my doubts going in

that cover ?
but it’s about birds ?
and it’s about motherhood ?*
but it’s about a human mother who gives birth to an owl baby ?
and it opens with a quote from Eraserhead ?

i figured i would read this and it would be fine but not really my kind of thing and i would write a carefully-phrased and polite review and that would be that.

but nooooo, i had to go and genuinely enjoy this book for its unsentimental tone, its magical realism style, the musicality of its language (including a few word-strangers i had to look up), and the goddamn ease of its storytelling.

it’s just…lovely. i mean, it isn’t hearts and flowers lovely; the book is riddled with dark predatory scenes, but it’s not horror, it’s just…nature.

it is indeed about a woman named tiny who gives birth to an owl-baby called chouette, and you’re welcome to read it as a metaphor of the challenges of raising a special-needs child against the callousness of the world and paternal disgust, but for me, it’s wayyy more fun to take it at face value—a child born to hunt, whose tantrums are not like all the other little girls’, a wild creature from whom a mother cannot expect to receive any recognizable signs of affection, who cannot communicate their needs as a human baby (“dog-baby”) does, whose inner life will always be a complete mystery.

ain’t no What to Expect When You’re Expecting an Owl-Baby to prepare anyone for this.

Parents underestimate what owl-babies can do, and I realize I’ve been guilty of making the same mistake myself. I’ve been listening too much to your father, who is preoccupied by the way you keep missing typical dog-baby developmental targets, like sits alone without support, when you don’t even bend in the middle, or displays social smile, when your mouth is as hard as a beak, or uses spoon to feed self, when you rip and tear and gorge on food without need of a spoon.

Nowhere in the developmental targets have I ever read: feeds self by killing small domesticated animals.

I’d like to see your dog-cousins try that.

motherhood is a life-changing experience, but even more so here, where tiny has to adjust her thinking towards the specific needs of an owl-baby, becoming attuned to her daughter’s primal nature, and adapting the typical parenting advice to nurture the traits that will allow chouette to thrive.

and, yes, it does draw from that conventional narrative well where a mother’s fierce protective love for her child manifests in heroic deeds, activating that maternal impulse to “fight, kill, or die” for their child’s well-being.

but it also manifests in creative problem-solving; purchasing and freezing large quantities of pinkie mice and releasing live snakes in the living room so that chouette can earn the “prey” in her “bird of prey” status, their home turning gradually into a vibrant ecosystem designed to stimulate and develop her daughter’s natural skills, recognizing that imposing her own value system on chouette would do her a great disservice:

Today you hunted down a juvenile pocket gopher in the backyard. Your timing was off. At first you only injured it. Its little back legs were broken. It tried to drag itself along toward the safety of a nearby gopher hole, by clutching at the dirt and blades of grass with its front paws and pulling itself along. You hopped along after it, deliriously happy, pecking at its middle parts, until its guts were spilling out. The small thing kept on trying to endure, and to make it to the safety of the gopher hole. You had no qualms about causing another living creature to suffer. I didn’t interfere—that would teach you the wrong lesson—but I was wrenched by the experience, and shaken by your lack of compassion. I needed to remind myself many times that owls are not social creatures. You’re a born predator. I need to repress my intermittent dog-thinking, and to remind myself that, to be the best owl-baby you can be, you don’t need to learn compassion. You need to learn ruthless, solitary strength.

But it was all I could do to not go over there and put the little thing out of its misery.

it’s brutal and beautiful and brilliant and i loved it.

i also loved the author’s the author’s open thank you letter to goodreaders in her review-space for this book (? ? ?), particularly the part where she says:

Because you told me I must read Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin and The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin, I learned that I love books about fantastic things, told matter-of-factly.

that’s exactly what she has achieved with Chouette, and apparently i love those things, too.

* i’m not against motherhood themes per se, but novels that announce themselves as being celebrations of motherhood are generally variations of the same emotion-by-numbers story around glad sacrifices and quiet ennobled suffering with occasional moments of joy or pride and it’s all very trite and familiar and dull. if i’m gonna read a novel self-identifying as a ‘meditation on motherhood,’ there better be something fresh brought to the mix, like—oh, i don’t know—make the baby an owl or something.

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