Author’s powerful tale of a mother raising an owl she birthed is more than a flight of fancy

Santa Cruz novelist Claire Oshetsky’s novel “Chouette” started as a memoir but turned itself into a surreal tale of mother-daughter bonding. Photo: Ellen Zensen

Claire Oshetsky, who lives in a rambling house in Santa Cruz, says that her book “Chouette” began as a memoir about raising her autistic daughter. Yet she soon realized the material wasn’t her story to tell but belonged to her daughter.

The idea fell apart until a sentence came to her: “I dream I’m making tender love to an owl.” From that turn to the surreal, her tale of powerful imagination springs.

“Once I wrapped this story in a fictional wrapper, I felt free to tell my own truth,” Oshetsky says. “It’s very mysterious to me how fiction can feel more truthful than fact.” Oshetsky says she consulted often with her daughter about the book, and her daughter, 21 and a skilled musician and composer, gave her suggestions.

The story unfolds with the inexorable logic of a geometric proof. The narrator, an accomplished cellist, wakes up one morning after dreaming she’s had sex with a large female owl. The next day she’s devastated to learn that she’s pregnant with an owl-child. Both her husband and doctor dismiss her fears, but just as she predicted, the baby, whom she names Chouette, is born as an owl. She’s classified as having birth defects and the mother is alone to take care of an alien baby.

“Chouette” by Claire Oshetsky Photo: HarperCollins

In the book, the mother is determined to bond and decides that her child can play the marimba with her wings. She orders a tiny marimba and the two play duets. Their bond becomes stronger, but so does the mother’s resentment as her child begins to mature into a full-grown owl. She eats a neighbor’s baby gerbil, as well as a dog that the father bought as a service pet, hoping to make her “normal.” Later, she’s expelled from school after school and the distraught father looks for cures, ranging from drugs to electronic programming. Nothing works, and the mother becomes a fierce and urgent protector of her child’s need to be herself.

“The metaphor of the owl baby was a symbolic self (my daughter) could relate to,” Oshetsky says, “but it didn’t co-opt her experiences or try to tell her story.”

The book easily recalls Franz Kafka, whose narrators also find themselves in surreal situations, like having to survey a castle never to be reached. Oshetsky’s book is surrealism at its best. It never wavers in depicting the literal, absurd and wrenching experience of having an owl child.

Among the writers Oshetsky counts as influences are Han Kang, Naomi Booth and David Vann.  The children’s classic “Stuart Little” by E.B. White also came to mind, she says.

“I read ‘Stuart Little’ when I was 8,” she says, ”and it revolted me, maybe because my mother was pregnant. In fact, you can interpret the entire book as the story of Stuart’s mother acting out the birth trauma. She sends Stuart down a slimy pipe to rescue her wedding ring, orders him into a piano while it’s being played (causing temporary deafness), terrorizes him with the family cat, and loses him in a garbage truck. I wanted to revisit this childhood nightmare but to give the mother a much bigger heart.”

The book succeeds in depicting a mother with a very big heart. But Oshetsky is also honest about moments of resentment, fear and confusion. “The father and the mother in ‘Chouette’ aren’t two people at all,” she says. “The father in the story is me on the days when I frantically searched for the right intervention, the right therapy. The mother in the story is me on the days when I was sure my child was perfect the way she was.”

“Chouette,” which abounds with humor and lush imagery, forces parents to consider their relationship with their children. We love them, are exhausted by them and sometimes question what “normal” is. We also impose on them the paradox of wanting them to conform while being themselves. Chouette’s parents are a subtle yet graphic depiction of what all parents feel at one time or another. But because they are allegorical descriptions of parenthood, the book has deep and universal resonance.

Chouette
By Claire Oshetsky
(Ecco Press;  256 pages; $24)

Author event
Bookshop Santa Cruz presents Claire Oshetsky in conversation with author Rachel Yoder. Virtual event. 6 p.m. Nov. 30. Free. Registration required. www.bookshopsantacruz.com



Leave a Comment

Advertise