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Review: Chouette - Claire Oshetsky

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fabulism Published: Little Brown UK, November 4th 2021

My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

“It was easier to love you before you were born”

Chouette first entered my radar whilst browsing a publisher catalogue because the cover intrigued me. Not because I particularly liked it, but more so that I was a little disturbed and creeped out, but still drawn to it. Boy, was I in for a treat when I received my copy, because this book was all that and more.

From the moment I started this strange and darkly twisted parable, I was only sure of one thing: Chouette is one of the weirdest and most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. That’s quite the feat as I’m no stranger to weird magical realism…

Our story opens when our protagonist Tiny finds out she’s pregnant, after having a strange dream of a night of passion with a female owl-lover. Her husband is over the moon, yet Tiny is inexplicably determined that something is wrong. This baby isn’t a normal baby; it’s an owl-baby.

She’s proven right when, after an anxious pregnancy, Chouette is born, small and broken-winged. Whilst her husband is willing to go to great length in order to “fix” her, Tiny vows to raise her daughter exactly the way she is. Even when that leads to unconventional and even violent situations…

Chouette will likely leave you with more questions than answers with regards to its interpretation, and the author does not guide you one way or another. The only thing that’s sure is that this is a story about motherhood in extremis and the length we will go to for what we perceive to be “the best” for our children. It covers the anxieties of pregnancy; the growth of a different person inside of you, the anticipating of this “perfect being”, the fear of it not being perfect and the simultaneous shame that comes with thinking like that. It covers ableism, social norms, non-conformity and our strange affinity for medicalising anything that is different. All of this, and more, is done in a confident, insightful and often witty narrative voice of a deeply talented novelist.

To me, chasing down every lead, fitting different interpretations and picking the story apart like an owl pellet was part of the joy to me. Perhaps that makes me a bit of an owl-person myself however. If you’re more of a dog-reader, you may find this book confusing and frustrating, and both interpretations are perfectly valid. In fact, if I took anything away from this novel, it was that I had to stop “interpreting” this novel so much. My “doctors-brain” kept asking questions like: Is Chouette on the autism spectrum? Does she have a birth-defect? Is she disabled? Just a “free-spirited kid”? What about Tiny: is this whole thing a post-partum psychosis?

In the end, none of that matters to the ultimate message I took from this book: Chouette is different, strange, wild and untameable. But aren’t all children in their own way? Chouette is Chouette, and it’s not our job as parents (or doctors) to label or fix her, but to help her find her place in the world.

Many thanks to the publisher Little Brown UK for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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