Chouette by Claire Oshetsky

Chouette is a second person narrative account written by Tiny (the mother), a professional cellist, to her baby Chouette.

The author Claire Oshetsky describes it as a parable about motherhood, the way she/they experienced raising two non-conforming children. She uses magical realism to magnify and portray a surreal circumstance.

Review

person playing cello Chouette Claire Oshetsky motherhood parable

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Tiny has always been an outsider and she knows her child will be different. She’s wary and unsure how to proceed, knowing it is going to take all she has, to raise her baby the way it will need to be nurtured. Impregnated by an owl, she gives birth to an owl-baby, Chouette.

One of the first things that is sacrificed is her cello playing quartet, and the time she previously spent playing. The instrument might have been sacrificed but music continues to be a part of their lives.

“As for you owl-baby, let’s lay out the facts. Your owlness is with you from the very beginning. It’s there when a first cell becomes two, four, eight. It’s there when you sleep too much, and crawl too late, and when you bite when you aren’t supposed to bite, and shriek when you aren’t supposed to shriek; and on the day that you are born – on the day when I first look down on your pinched-red, tiny-clawed, outraged little body lying naked and intubated in a box – I won’t have the slightest idea about who you are, or what I will become.

But there you will be, and you will be of me.”

Chouette Clairte OshetskyTiny describes to her daughter the story of her conception and arrival into the world and the challenges she has had, both living in a world where her husband, his family and much of the community frown upon this mother and child, and of the mother’s increasing loss of her own sense of self, due to the sacrifices made in order to nurture and allow the child to develop and grow safely.

Tiny sees her offspring as an owl-baby and shares how this magical conception and birth took place, while the husband continues to refer to her as Charlotte. Tiny is tuned into Chouette’s needs, but senses disapproval everywhere, and the more understanding she is of Chouette, the more she feels the external world closing in on her.

“I begin to understand what a gift I’ve been given, to have been chosen for this task. The truth overwhelms me, and humbles me. The birds are telling me that my life’s work, as your mother, will be to teach you how to be yourself – and to honour however much of the wild world you have in you, owl-baby – rather than mould you to be what I want you to be, or what your father wants you to be.”

The story shares these twin perspectives, of the way Tiny sees the world (described through the metaphor of an owl baby and everything she needs, how she behaves and the incongruency of that with the expectations of the existing world they live in) – and the perspective of the husband, who can only see things from the perspective of what he has been conditioned to believe is normal.

motherhood, sacrifice, love,Thus a struggle arises between two ways of seeing, of being, one that requires natural behaviour to be modified, medicated, suppressed, so that the child will appear and behave in the family and society as “normal”, while the other allows for that natural “but judged and condemned” way of being to exist.

Therein lies the central conflict, whether to train a child to fit in with everyone else, a shadow of their former self, or allow them to feel more comfortable in their own skin by being themselves. Rather then compromise, the novel presents the two options as extremes, posing one against the other, mother against father.

Each reader is likely to have a different experience of reading the novel, depending on whether you read it as magical realism or a metaphor. Just as the husband and wife see things so very differently in their perspective and determination about how to raise this child, so too will a reader bring their own perspective, experience and varying degree of open-mindedness to the text.

Music, A Narrative Accompaniment

Throughout the novel there are references to different pieces of music, that resonate with the mood or feeling being experienced, or are used to calm a situation. The author’s daughter, a musician, contributed to this aspect of the novel.

“There’s a lot of music  in the novel, and she was my primary consultant about music. And the other way she helped me was just reminiscing about what it was like for her to live through this shared experience of being a child that was deeply misunderstood and sometimes put in situations that were frightening, even in her school system or with therapists that we went with her to see.”

It is very much Tiny’s narrative and as such, there is little empathy towards the husband’s perspective, which challenges and discomforts the reader.

It is a dark, contemporary tale that couldn’t be more relevant than now, when so many mother’s are facing the same dilemma. Should I follow my own intuitive inclination, because I know this child, I love this child, and when I don’t compare this child to others, I see he/she/they are perfect the way are – or do I listen to what the other, the external world is saying, is judging, is condemning them to, despite reducing them to a shell of who they really are?

Owl Symbolism

Owl Wisdom Branch Green

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I found it an incredible, disturbing, yet resonant novel, so mind openly, imaginative in the creation of an owl-like creature to accentuate the reactions and responses non-conforming children invite without asking. The owl a prescient choice, auspicious.

The owl sees in the dark, is an observant listener, with its heightened powers of observation and intuition. In some traditions it possesses paranormal wisdom, regal silence and fierce intelligence. Just like those extraordinary children.

Further Reading

Essay, Refinery 29 – Gender: A Family Story by Claire Oshetsky

NPR Interview: A parable about motherhood, ‘Chouette‘ begins with a human birth to an owl baby – Danielle Kurzleban talks to Claire Oshetsky

Poets & Writers: Ten Questions for Claire Oshetsky

The Author, Claire Oshetsky

Claire Oshetsky is a novelist whose writing has appeared in Salon, Wired, and the New York Times. She lives with her family in California. Chouette is her debut novel.

A Woman on the Edge of Time: A Son’s Search for His Mother by Jeremy Gavron

img_0485A Woman on the Edge of  Time is a memoir that reads like a mystery, as Jeremy Gavron, a journalist, interviews family, old school friends, neighbours and colleagues of his mother Hannah Gavron, whom he has little memory of.

It documents his long-delayed search for a greater understanding of why she took her own life at 29 years of age, a married, working mother of two boys aged four and seven, living in Highgate, London.

It was 1965, she had been on the cusp of publishing a manuscript encapsulating the findings of her sociology research into the conflicts faced by young housebound mothers in North London, The Captive Wife. It was two years since another mother of two young children Sylvia Plath, had done the same thing.

Hannah Gavron was an out-going, confident child, an accomplished, confident teenager, popular and desirous of growing up. She wanted to do something with her life, to share her views with the world, but she also wanted freedom, to leave the constraints of family, to be in love, to claim her place in a rapidly changing society. She married at 18, went to RADA drama school for a year, quit, had two children, then realising her prospects were limited, went back to university to study sociology, attained a PhD and then a teaching post at the “iconic British art institute”, renowned for its experimental and progressive approach, Hornsey College of Art.

It seemed she had everything going for her, and yet at that tender age of 29, when her youngest son Jeremy, was 4 years old, she took her own life, shocking everyone around her.

Now the father of two girls himself, having previously just accepted the subject of his mother was a taboo subject never raised, he is seized by an urgency to know and understand the mystery, for how could it happen that a woman with so much going for her, two small children and a manuscript about to heighten her career, could suddenly end it all?

He interviews an extraordinary number of people and succeeds in recreating the jigsaw of Hannah’s life in incredible detail and begins to understand the multiple forces that may have played a part in leading up to that tragic decision.

As gripping as any mystery, it reads like a pageturner providing an interesting insight into the subject Hannah Gavron wrote her thesis about, ‘The Captive Wife’ and the struggle of women in the early 1960’s, a period just prior to the second wave of feminism, an era whose attitudes and dilemmas were encapsulated in Doris Lessing’s powerful account of a woman searching for her personal and political identity, The Golden Notebook, published in 1962.

 

Looking back from our own times, the subject seems an obvious one, still relevant today, but in 1960 it was neither obvious nor easy for her to get past her academic supervisors. For all the advances gained by the suffragette movement, and the opportunities the war had given woman to work and experience life beyond family,  the woman’s movement was in retreat in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. in the post-war period, emphasis had been put on the role of motherhood in rebuilding Britain. The Beveridge Report, the basis for social reforms, spoke of how ‘housewives as mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British race and of British ideals in the world’.

A woman attempting to forge an academic career in sociology at the time and proposing studies which focused on women as the subject, was provocative and a gesture not ready to be accepted by many in power in academia.

In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport

In Her Wake, Nancy Rappaport

It reminded me of reading Nancy Rappaport’s In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide, she too was 4 years old when her mother, who was raising a large family as well as being involved in organising society events and political campaigning, suddenly committed suicide. That drama took place in 1963 in Boston.

They are tragic stories and serve to create a more substantial memory for the authors, piecing together the lives of these woman who should have been able to contribute so much more than they did.

It left me wondering about the author himself, as he keeps himself well out of the narrative, not shining any light on how it had been for him to grow up under this shadow, this absence. How was it for him to accept the love of another mother, how might this turning point have influenced who he would become. Rather he shines his light outward and builds an incredibly detailed vision of his mother, leaving just a hint of suggestion that within her, we may also finds parts of him.

Further Reading

The Guardian, Nov 2015 – Jeremy Gavron: ‘My mother was a woman who looked for solutions. Suicide was a solution’

The Guardian, Apr 2009 – ‘Tell the Boys I Loved Them’

Buy a Copy of A Woman on the Edge of Time Here