A book I recently fell in love with is Chouette by Claire Oshetsky. It’s a feminist fable about motherhood, neurodiversity, and society’s harrowing straight jacket.
The novel opens with our protagonist learning that she’s pregnant from having spent a night with her owl-lover. Unlike her husband, she’s not delighted. She knows their baby will defy all his expectations. “This baby is an owl-baby.”
The prospective father doesn’t take her seriously. He claims he understands her natural fears of becoming a mother, yet urges her to be reasonable. As a reader, however, I never doubt the mother’s point of view. Oshetsky’s voice for her protagonist is so sure, that I never think she might be exaggerating or confused.
When the baby is born small and prematurely, the doctors leave her by herself in an incubator, much to the mother’s dismay.
“My poor girl’s wings are bruised and battered from beating against her box. She is alone and afraid. I lift off the top of the box and I pick her up. Alarms begin to sound. My daughter’s eyes are still closed and she is rooting about blindly and her skin is covered in black natal down. I hold her to my breast and she begins to feed.”
The mother proceeds to take her owl-baby home and lovingly calls her Chouette. She is determined to raise this child as her most authentic self, even if that means Chouette will stay violent and strange. But caring for her requires sacrifices. She must give up her career as a cellist and music as she has known it. When Chouette destroys the marimba her parents bought her, the mother observes:
“But you’ve kept on playing, owl-baby. You giggle and swoon. The keys have splintered into new lengths, and they don’t play the same notes as before. They’re new notes. They’re your notes.”
The novel takes a dark turn when the previously disinterested father becomes obsessed by his need to find a “cure” for their daughter. The mother does everything in her power to stop him from ruining Chouette’s body and mind.
“The novel Chouette is a parable about motherhood as I experienced it,” writes Claire Oshetsky on her website. In interviews she has spoken about raising “non-conforming” children as an autistic mother. Her book made it possible for me to imagine what that might feel like.
Chouette by Claire Oshetsky, Ecco, 2021
Recommendations of other novels and short story collections: