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256 pages, Hardcover
First published November 4, 2021
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.
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.
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.
My life becomes a row of tiny memory-pearls, strung along a limpid string. Typically, you sleep until noon. When you’re awake, I change your diaper and feed you a meal of chopped pinkie mice mixed with raw egg. After breakfast you burp up a neat pellet like clockwork. And then, in the afternoon, we’ll play music together. I’ve decided to call the sounds we make together “music.” I play my cello, and you run and peck at your little marimba. I’m never sure whether the sounds you make are intentional or whether they are accidental improvisations—a kind of found art. Either way, my days have become tolerable. It’s true that if I try to play any music on my own— music I might want to play, independent of your wishes— then you’ll fly at me and peck at my fingers and slash at the fingerboard. .... I’ve learned it’s best to follow your lead and to adapt to your tunings.
Tiny has had a one-time dalliance with her secret owl lover. (I know…I get ya…read on.) She is now pregnant, and is a hundred per cent sure that her baby is an owl-baby, something her husband only sees as one of the mental side-effects of pregnancy. When Chouette is born though, Tiny is proved correct. Small and predatory, Chouette proves to be a very difficult owl-baby who functions as per her own adamant demands. But Tiny is a mother, and she vows to do the best she can to make her child happy, even if it means going against her husband and the rest of the world, and even if she ends up bloodied and bruised by her screeching child. (Yup, screeching, not screaming.) When her husband decides that he wants to seek a “cure” for their child, the time comes for Tiny to make tough decisions.
The story is written in the first person perspective of Tiny. Here’s one line said by Tiny to Chouette midway the story, and it best represents the essence of the book:
“Here’s the crux of it, owl-baby. Your father wants to fix you, and I want us to love you as you are.”
- Tiny’s story can be seen as a metaphor on the difficulties of parenting and motherhood. It also rises the themes of social conformity and acceptance, adherence to social norms rather than retaining your individuality, and fitting in predefined standards. (In a way, it seems to question the entire educational system that remoulds every individual imaginative thinker into a generically required skillset.)
- Do we need to conform to societal expectations in order to lead happy lives? At the same time, is it possible to survive in society by being a total non-conformist? Tough questions with no easy answers. But I liked the metaphor used by the author for these two elements. The nonconformists were ‘owls’ – wild & individualistic - and the conformists were ‘dogs’ – tame and loyal. (As I love dogs and owls, I felt torn between the two similes.)
- Chouette’s arc can also be seen as a metaphor for children with extreme mental disorders and how parents and others struggle to behave with such kids, who don’t deliberately behave outrageously but it is how they are.
- Tiny’s character is a tough one to process. There are shades of various emotional problems: a bit of PTSD, a bit of under-confidence, a bit of melancholia, a bit of defensiveness,… You will root for her and yet dislike her adamant insistence of doing everything single-handedly for Chouette. Kind of like a helicopter parent, who means well but ends up destroying the child’s independent development.
- As the story comes from the mother’s perspective, it is very easy to say that this is a commentary on the extent to which mothers can go for their children, “In extremis”, as the blurb declares. But the role of Chouette’s father in this story is equally crucial. He stands for all that is straightforward and within societal norms. He wants the best for his daughter, so as to ensure a happy future for her after her parents are no longer alive. Is that wrong? I don’t think so. A part of me felt very sorry for him, especially as I know most readers will consider his character the villain of the story. But as a parent, I sympathised more with him than with Tiny. He stood by his wife and daughter during the worst of times and didn’t give up on them. He deserved a greater credit for his intentions, even if they didn’t always work out to plan.
I dream I’m making tender love with an owl. The next morning I see talon marks across my chest that trace the path of my owl-lover’s embrace. Two weeks later I learn that I’m pregnant.
You may wonder: How could such a thing come to pass between woman and owl?
I, too, am astounded, because my owl-lover was a woman.
* * *
As for you, owl-baby, let’s lay out the facts. Your owlness is with you from the very beginning. It’s there when a first cell becomes two, four, eight. It’s there when you sleep too much, and crawl too late, and when you bite when you aren’t supposed to bite, and shriek when you aren’t supposed to shriek; and on the day that you are born—on the day when I first look down on your pinched-red, tiny-clawed, outraged little body lying naked and intubated in a box—I won’t have the slightest idea about who you are, or what I will become.
But there you will be, and you will be of me.
My mother-in-law sees right over me. She is six feet tall and never looks down. She looks out toward the horizon instead, with an expression on her face as if she is thinking the same thought all the time, and that thought has something to do with the pioneer spirit.
She is strong. She is monstrously individual. She is sister to the Titans. She is Ozymandias before the fall. She is the bird of omen, dark and foul; she is blood-wed; she is Strix; she is harbinger of war and bringer of death and slaughterer of armies, oh, my Polyphonte!—
She is the girl I raised her to be.
The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvellous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.