‘Chouette’ is Strange, but Lingers

Claire Oshetsky’s new book, Chouette, has one of the strangest and most gripping beginnings I have ever read:

“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.”

What’s really remarkable about that beginning is that it just gets stranger from there. Over the course of this slim novel, the plot spirals and turns in ways I could not have guessed at its outset.

Our narrator, Tiny—the one with the owl lover that may or may not be confined to dreamland—is, in fact, pregnant, and she is sure her husband is not its biological parent. But her unnamed husband ignores Tiny’s warnings that she is going to have an “owl baby” instead of the more typical “dog baby,” and is predictably distressed when Tiny’s predictions come true. From the very beginning, Tiny knows Chouette is different, and that she will always be different, and that her differences, though strange to many, do not diminish her. When Chouette pecks at her nipple or insists on eating field mice, Tiny accommodates to the point that vermin take up residence in her house.

Her husband does not notice, nor does he bring Chouette around to his extremely opinionated and aggressively normal extended family when it becomes clear how odd she is. Instead, he dedicates himself to finding this therapy and that medication that might help “Charlotte,” as he calls her, to become “normal.” Tiny fights against him as he insists on sending her to a string of special preschools (all disasters), getting her a therapy dog (which Chouette finds delicious), and taking her to doctor after doctor. As treatment after treatment fail to make Chouette more like other kids, Tiny and her husband’s relationship deteriorates—as does, possibly, Tiny’s grip on her own identity outside of being Chouette’s mother.

The more time you spend looking at the cover, the weirder it is, much like the book itself.

Chouette is a clear metaphor for parenting an atypical child, which would have been obvious even if Oshetsky didn’t come right out and say it. As someone who has no children beyond the four-legged kind, I think I probably would have gotten more out of the metaphor if I had any child, let alone an unusual one. Frankly, as it was, Chouette made me a bit terrified of children, even the ones that don’t peck. And terrified, too, of Tiny’s forced relinquishment of everything she loved before—her musical career, her friendships and relationships—and her ability to live a normal life herself. Oshetsky’s rendering of Tiny’s husband does not paint him as a sympathetic character as he battles Tiny for what amounts to deciding Chouette’s future, but the degradation of that marriage feels tragic all the same.

Tiny is our sole window into this strange world of hers, and she is not the most reliable reporter of it. The middle of the book, as she is spiraling into this very strange situation that is now her life, Oshetsky tightens the lens to the point that I felt suffocating just reading it. Because things aren’t just devolving with her husband, but with Chouette, too. As the owl baby gets older and bigger, she gets into more trouble, and it’s more serious than the pecks and scratches she gave in her infant years. With her single-minded devotion to Chouette, Tiny’s credibility with the outside world wanes, too, making it harder for her to advocate for Chouette. As things come to a head in the final act, it becomes tough for the reader to root for her, too—even though it’s clear she was right about Chouette all along.

I told a group of friends about Chouette right after I finished reading it. One asked if I liked it. I think in the case of Chouette, “like” and “dislike” are too simplistic to describe the reader experience. Because if I’m being honest, I didn’t “like” Chouette in all its twisting, spiraling glory—but I was captivated by it. Even as it was making me feel claustrophobic and suffocated in the middle part, I couldn’t put it down, didn’t want to put it down. Now that it’s over, I can’t stop thinking about it. And I can’t stop playing the playlist Oshetsky provides in the back for all the pieces, mentioned and unmentioned, that provided the backdrop for Tiny’s escapades (especially this piece by Patricia Taxxon, Oshetsky’s daughter and an inspiration for the book).

So I didn’t like Chouette, exactly, but I didn’t dislike it, either, and I’ve already told several people they absolutely must read it. Take that as you will. Maybe the strangeness that is Chouette, like a song stuck in your head, simply needs to be shared.

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