The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang tr. Chi-Young Kim

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 HenThe 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.”

010113_1257_AMonthinthe2.jpgSprout 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 DownSun-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.

The Pearl

I am content as my first foray into the work of John Steinbeck reveals that he too loves a fable, and like the best of them, lets the story speak for itself.

His short novel ‘The Pearl’ is based on a Mexican folk tale about Kino and Juana, a young couple who live a basic existence, their joy of a first baby threatened when it suffers the sting of a scorpion.

Kino is a pearl diver and on the day he most needs a miracle, the discovery of a large pearl appears at first to be the answer to the couple’s prayer. However, its discovery disturbs the community’s tranquil equilibrium, it seems too much to embrace and while it is in their possession, it wreaks only havoc.

There is a sense of inevitability with this kind of tale, we know the pearl is symbolic, and we recognise that desperate grasping, clutch of desire, laced with fear and stalked by paranoia, the fleeting hope it inspires is stifled by the more pervasive greed and jealousy which quickly degenerate into suspicion and violence.

Despite the inevitability, I read with the wilful hope of an optimist, always searching for some altruistic sign, an indication of man’s humanity, the charitable gesture of an honest person. Steinbeck leads us along on this journey, as we develop our own understanding bathing in his glorious prose.

Now Kino’s people had sung of everything that happened or existed. They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea on anger and to the sea in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the songs were all in Kino and in his people – every song that had ever been made, even the ones that had been forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was in Kino…

Taking the pearl from its natural habitat changes its symbolism, for in nature it is pure, lustrous, a thing of splendour and inspiration, it represents the transformation of something irritable (the grain of sand) into something of divine beauty (the pearl). But removing it from the sea will corrupt everything that sees, hears of, imagines or touches it; it becomes representative of greed and avarice, the longer it stays in their possession, the greater its destructive power. But will returning it to nature undo its curse?

In addition to this enjoyable story, the book opens with a foreword which reads like a letter from Steinbeck’s wife Elaine. She shares something of the joy of his writing life, his impulsive and creative attempts to construct the perfect writing environment (including building a writing room in the back seat of his Ford Station Wagon) all of which for me, created an almost familiar context from which to begin reading the great man’s work.

Onward to his next oeuvre, Tortilla Flat awaits.