If you’re a fan of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love or Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, you’ll likely feel right at home within the perpetually shifting landscape of Claire Oshetsky’s debut novel, Chouette. Which is to say, if you don’t mind a little unexpected violence set in a surreal landscape, it will be right up your alley.
Chouette’s mom, Tiny, is a cellist who has a dream of a sexual encounter with an owl and, two weeks later, learns she is 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.” Tiny’s unnamed husband is at first more overjoyed by the pregnancy than she is, and as the owl-baby begins to take over Tiny’s thoughts and emotions, her musical talent begins to desert her.
After the birth, Tiny’s husband rejects the notion of an owl-baby, suggesting that the child he calls “Charlotte” is perhaps developmentally disabled while overlooking the fact that she eats mice and other snacks not typically found in the grocery store’s baby food department. As the days begin to drift away like so many molted feathers, some hazy shapes of proto-truths emerge. Tiny’s husband wants to “fix” Chouette, while Tiny would rather see nature take its course and adapt her love to her owl-child’s needs, rather than the other way around.
Tiny’s husband enrolls Chouette in an increasingly bizarre series of treatments carried out by medical practitioners with names like Doctor Zoloft, Doctor Benzodiazepine, Doctor Chelation, Doctor Rectal Flushing and Doctor Hyperbaric. Needless to say, these therapies to “normalize” Chouette are unsuccessful, but that doesn’t keep the husband from trying, nor Tiny from getting more frantic in her quest to allow Chouette simply to be herself. It seems inevitable that a day of reckoning is not long off, and when it comes, it arrives like an owl strike: abruptly, decisively and violently. Owls, after all, are predators.
Oshetsky shows an exceptional talent for keeping the reader off balance. Is Tiny hallucinating? Is she in hell? Is this a metaphor? Is any of the story actually happening in the manner it’s being told? The ambiguity is tantalizing, even mesmerizing, and if your internal gyroscope is sufficiently operative to keep you from slipping off the edge, Chouette will richly reward your attention.