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By Claire Oshetsky
Visitors to this year’s wildly popular Alice Neel retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were treated to portraits depicting pregnancy at its most candid. These renderings resulted from Neel’s grappling with the dual responsibilities of mother and artist, a dilemma she referred to as “that awful dichotomy.” Directly born from this dichotomy is Claire Oshetsky’s searing and ethereal debut novel, “Chouette.”
Tiny, a professional cellist living in Sacramento, has stepped out on her dull husband to have an affair with a beloved friend from her youth, a female owl, and is now pregnant with a baby who is half human, half owl. She wrestles with the effect this baby will have on her music career, not to mention her reputation within her husband’s equally dull family. The novel is named for the owl-daughter who arrives and proceeds to overturn every system in Tiny’s life.
The fable’s metaphors leap organically from the page, contouring the dichotomy as capably as do Neel’s oils: a newborn’s vulnerability and destructive power; the mother’s isolation; her tender, feral nature. A spate of recent fiction about motherhood (Claire Vaye Watkins’s “I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness,” Torrey Peters’s “Detransition, Baby”) has helped broaden a canon that has been historically inaccessible to writers who, whether by raising children or working long hours or caring for elders, spend their days in service of others. Sometimes these books simply reiterate the sentiment that parenting — even when rich and white — is difficult, but at their keenest, they offer complex reimaginings of societal roles.
Sometimes I wonder how “motherhood,” a singular noun, can encompass so many varied experiences. Do we doom the conversation — and the mothers who fall outside of a perceived norm — by referring to it as a monolith? Tiny is white, affluent (she flies to Berlin on a whim to attend the symphony and to consider whether to keep the baby) and squarely in the middle of a fable, yet her motherhood feels specific and surprising. She works to keep her career (wood shrews nest in her cello), her house (overtaken by nature) and her reputation, even as her heart expands to protect Chouette.
The owl-daughter presents another dichotomy. To learn more about her owl side, I consulted Chris Conard, a natural resource specialist for Sacramento County, who guessed Chouette to be a Western screech, though he said the descriptions and cover image seem purposefully democratic. Oshetsky’s choice to evoke our popular idea of an owl is effectively romantic. Owls are associated with mystery and wisdom (although Conard notes that the big eyes behind that reputation are simply a result of their nocturnal nature), and they hunt by sound, one ear slightly higher than the other to triangulate prey on the ground. It makes sense that Chouette, the daughter of a cellist, would have inherited her mother’s exceptional ear.
On the human side, the novel resists specifying Chouette’s behavioral challenges, referring to her only as “nonconforming.” Doctors suggest treatments that include swim therapy, a “special school,” tough love and — in the novel’s most terrifying section — experimental surgery. While ambiguity in fables allows for interpretation, a vague idea of disability in a metaphorical construction runs the risk of reducing severe disability to animalistic comparison. “Chouette” seems to answer this by focusing squarely on Tiny’s fierce love as she battles her husband and nature to allow Chouette to be wild and exact, stakes that feel frightening and true to life.
Eventually, owl-daughters must hunt for themselves. As Chouette grows more independent, Tiny experiences a final, awful dichotomy: twin desires to keep and let fly. In fiction, supernatural premises are notoriously hard to land, but “Chouette”’s final moments are among its loveliest. Human and owl meet in equal measure on the page in a crescendo of stunning lines. Just as Tiny longs for the world to meet her daughter where she is instead of forcing her into societal norms, “Chouette” is best met where it resides: as a harrowing and magnificent fable.
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