"Chouette" by Claire Oshetsky

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As we read through Claire Oshetsky’s Chouette, we dwell in a confusing landscape of fantasy on the one hand, and hardpan reality on the other. Tiny, a diminutive virtuoso cellist, becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby owl. She knows it’s an owl-baby from the moment of conception: there’s an imagined scene in which her owl lover, a female, sleeps with her in a place cryptically called “the Gloaming,” in a tender, sensual scene, and during which Tiny conceives. The author then lets hardpan reality dominate, and result is a unique, quirky flight of fancy requiring agility on the part of the reader.

Chouette, Tiny’s daughter owl, proves a challenge from the get-go, even before she’s born. Tiny has a relatively difficult pregnancy, what with talons and a beak inside her, and the birth causes very predictable consternation on everyone but her. The delivering doctor tries to forget what he’s seen, and succeeds rather too quickly. Her husband, at first thrilled with her pregnancy, is repelled by his infant daughter, and never stops trying to turn her into something a little, or a lot, more human. Her husband’s family does its best to repudiate Tiny and Chouette, eventually ostracizing them completely. Tiny’s husband goes along with it.

Readers can take Chouette as a very typical example of how a child can be pulled in opposite directions by parents who apparently want very different things for their child.  The conflict between Tiny and her once-doting husband rings honest and true, and he sides with his family, alienating Tiny, and making her ever more protective of Chouette. Her husband’s family of five tall brothers and their opinionated wives come through as a single unit of suspicion and rejection. The medical profession fares poorly in this book, too. The doctors are self-absorbed, greedy, dismissive, brusque, and hostile. A woman doesn’t have to give birth to a baby owl to experience any of this.

Chouette is spare, well-paced and suspenseful, and contains characters you wish well. It builds with anticipated gloom and failure, and yet does not yield to run-of-the-mill expectation. It will surprise you every time. It does stretch one’s willingness to suspend disbelief, but once you’re on board with the fantasy, its other virtues come to the fore. For me, it’s really a study on one young mother’s struggle to love her baby against odds, and can stand for thousands, or millions, of other mothers in the same boat.



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