Tiny is pregnant, but not as we know her: she is waiting for an “owl baby”, the result of a secret experiment with a female “owl mistress”. “This kid will never learn to talk, to love, or to take care of himself,” Taine learned. Her husband, an intellectual property rights attorney, believes her panic was just a pregnancy stress, and that she was carrying his child. Even when he finds a gutted opossum on the road and his “well-fed” wife sits in the dark (“I didn’t feel so dark. I see everything”), it’s incredible. Then the child is born.
Choit, Claire Oshetsky’s first novel, is part Angela Carter-style feminist fantasy, and part suburban body horror. Her engravings are a quote from the movie David Lynch an eraser: “Mom, they’re still not sure about it He is Baby!” This film, about an alien-like infant, was, according to Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer, based on her “birth defects.” Ochitsky describes the novel as being inspired by her experience raising “non-conforming children,” and she herself has autism. For a child who misses his stages of development, does not speak up and criticizes when he is afraid, familiar to some families with disabilities or neurodiversity.
Disability is often used as a metaphor for horror, and in the wrong hands it can become a tasteless and offensive metaphor. This is not the case now. Truly, Chouette is a sublime tale of a mother’s love that ferociously takes away from society’s failure to accept non-conformity. It features one of the most distasteful duets I’ve known in fiction; All Tiny’s husband wants is to find a medical “cure” for Chouette, who he insists on calling him “Charlotte”. He leaves the mother and child to sleep over the garage, while his family excludes the newborn from gatherings and never visits him. In one memorable scene, Tiny’s husband cries on her chest while the other nurses her baby owl. “This is the moment when I choose you to be the person I will love the most…” Tainey says to her child.
Chouette is filled with moments of dark humor where the mundane elements of the narrative conflict with the nature of suburban life and the demands it places on wives and mothers. Like all “fantasy” literary works, it leaves the reader uncertain: is this a book about the truly supernatural, or a manifestation of the mother’s coping mechanism?
I wouldn’t be surprised if Schwete finds a place for it in the feminist literary canon. It has stuck in my mind in a way that only original works do. In its exploration of difference — of disability, of weirdness — it feels really modern, but in its themes of love and sacrifice, it’s the world’s oldest tale.