This book is proof that it is not just reviews and the recommendations of friends that help us choose which book to read next, that an excellent cover and title coupled with an alluring blurb can suffice to motivate that impulse.
The cover made me pause and the promise of an inspiring fable in a short piece of internationally acclaimed translated fiction sounded enticing enough, but the discovery that the author Sun-mi Hwang had herself overcome the obstacle of childhood poverty and found a way to educate herself to achieve her dream to read and write sealed it.
Like Margarita Engle’s novel in verse The Wild Book and Tove Jansson’s Summer and Winter Book’s, sometimes a mood enhancing book is just what we need to bring ourselves back to life’s simple values for encouragement and reassurance.
The story revolves around ‘Sprout’, a battery hen frustrated with her caged life laying eggs in a sloping wire cage which causes her eggs to roll away, enabling the farmer to conveniently collect them to sell. She hatches a plan to escape, seeking a life outside the barn where others animals appear to roam free and where she feels it most likely to be able to achieve her dream of nurturing an egg to life.
Along the way we meet the old dog that guards the barn, the rooster who crows in the morning, the yard hen, a community of ducks and the lone hungry weasel.
“Whenever she saw the yard hen, Sprout couldn’t stand it – she felt even more confined in her wire cage. She too wanted to dig through the pile of compost with the rooster, walk side by side with him, and sit on her eggs.”
Sprout escapes the coop and directs all her energy into survival. She learns who her friends are and who to be wary of.
She discovers the perceptions that govern the role each animal is set to play.
“Yes, you’re both hens, but you’re different. How do you not know that? Just like I’m a gatekeeper and the rooster announces the morning, you’re supposed to lay eggs in a cage. Not in the yard! Those are the rules.”
No fairy tale, this is fable at its best, confronting the reality of stepping outside the role society has dictated (even if nature has not divined) and showing that while achieving the goal can be possible, it is a route fraught with challenges. Reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm or Adams Watership Down, Sun-mi Hwang brings us her perception of society through characters that we recognise with our own interpretation and reminds us that even the most far-fetched dreams are worth pursuing, no matter what the odds.
We read with trepidation and a strong desire, not so much for Sprout to succeed in her quest, but to survive. It is a delightful and touching story, deserving of its success.
Note: The book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.