A charmingly told coming of age tale, Emme Lund’s debut novel The Boy with a Bird in His Chest is a treat to read and bound to win over most readers.
It follows Owen Tanner, a boy with a secret: he has a bird that lives in his chest. A little java sparrow named Gail, to be specific. It lives in an open part of his chest, caged in by the dull grey of Owen’s ribcage. “His heart is pushed down so that it sits above his belly and his left lung is shoved against his sternum,” writes Lund, “She has been there since he was born. She’ll die when he dies.” There’s a name for this in Owen’s world: A Terror, a mythical group of people who are attested to in literature, but never documented by medical science.
So Owen’s mom, a nervous wreck named Janice, keeps him safe inside her house, away from what’s dubbed the Army of Acronyms, a sort of catch-all for doctors, lawyers, cops and other people who would take Owen away from her. They’d use him for experiments and all sorts of other scary things simply to prove Terrors exist. Her anxiety rubs off on young Owen, who never leaves the house. He learns by watching television and from Gail, who’s chatty and quick with a joke. But by the time he’s a teenager, Owen wants more: he wants to be free from his confines and wants to be around other teens, like the ones he sees on TV. He goes outside during a forest fire, has an asthma attack and has to see a doctor. His secret is revealed and he goes on the run.
Lund’s book follows Owen as he travels out to Washington state, out near Olympia, where he falls in with his cousin and her queer circle of friends. They go to punk shows, smoke weed and Owen falls in with what’s something of a chosen family. At the same time, he also doesn’t fit in with the crowd around him: there’s Clyde, the moody kid next door and his angry, fundamentalist father who roams around on horseback, rifle at the ready. And there’s bullies at school, too. When Lund writes about them, it’s hard not to get drawn into how it feels not only to be an outsider, but to be punished for it:
“Troy’s boot climbed Owen’s rib cage, and when it reached the place where Gail lived, Owen shut his eyes, squeezed them shut. Duck, Gail. Wrap yourself up tight. I die when you die. He dripped the words down his throat. Blood gushed down his chin. He considered going limp, of lying on the forest floor and giving up. This is how it would end for him.
Gail sent words back up. Careful. I die when you die.” (pg 100)
But it’s not a somber or dark tale: despite his troubles, Owen finds people he can relate to and, through them, finds the strength to blossom and be himself. He makes friends and falls in love. And in his cousin Tennessee, he finds not only someone who can guide him through life’s troubles, but makes a deep connection with, someone who he feels safe around and can literally open up to.
A boy with a bird living in his chest is something of a loaded metaphor. It signifies that Owen is not only different from everyone, but he’s different in a way that’s immediately visible to anyone who looks at him. He’s called a Terror, a word that Lund always capitalizes, a name that implies Owen is scary and perhaps a monster, despite all evidence suggesting the contrary. As such, he keeps his guard up and refuses to let anyone get to know him on a deep level. It’s a metaphor anyone who’s queer can immediately identify with: they also have to keep themselves hidden, be it from intolerant families or outspoken bigots. They have to learn to trust the Gail in their chest if they want to make it through the world with a minimum of injuries.
Throughout the book, Lund peppers her prose with recurring phrases that echo and build up a meaning for readers. There’s the looming Army of Acronyms and the way they pathologize being different. There’s the Terrors, the perpetual outsiders. And, maybe most memorably, there’s Thieves of Joy, people who suck away at what makes others happy. This last phrase is repeated most often by Clyde, who goes through a parallel arc, his own journey of self-discovery where he and Owen keep finding themselves interacting and their fates getting intertwined. It’s between them that Lund’s story packs the most emotional punches: sharing lunch at school, a moment in the woods or the same space of sand on the beach. As much as this is Owen’s story, Clyde’s development is never far behind.
Interestingly, music is a constant theme throughout this book, a way for people to connect and find themselves, be it from sharing a CD walkman to hanging out at a punk club to hanging out in a living room with a crowd of people. It’s a nice device, and it’s own that resonated with me a lot as someone who’s fostered deep connections that way. The peppering of band names also helps give the novel it’s Pacific northwest flavour: Quasi, Sleater-Kinney and other Olympia-area bands all get repeated mentions.
Told in a series of brisk chapters, with prose that’s generally pretty lean and with hints of magical realism (I kept thinking about Murakami when I read it), The Boy with a Bird in His Chest veers pretty hard into Young Adult territory at times, but never in a way where it feels like it’s speaking down to its audience. In her preface, Lund writes that she wanted to write the book she wishes she could have read in her twenties. In that sense, it’s a success – it’s a book I wish I could’ve read at 20.
That said, The Boy with a Bird in His Chest is a well done debut, a book that grapples with how hard it is to be different and to grow into yourself. It’s definitely a very queer book, but it’s also one with a big heart and it’s one that deserves a wide audience.