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Bird-brained: Brood, by Jackie Polzin, reviewed

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

29 May 2021

9:00 AM

Brood Jackie Polzin

Pan Macmillan, pp.240, 14.99

This is not a novel about four chickens of various character — Gloria, Miss Hennepin County, Gam Gam and Darkness — that belong to the nameless narrator of Brood. That is incidental. It is a novel about a miscarriage — ‘our baby had been a girl’ — and, because it is a novel about the loss of a child pretending to be a novel about chickens, it is a brilliant novel about chickens. They have a biographer now, but they can’t be grateful, and that is why she loves them. ‘By the time a snowflake has landed, snowflakes are all a chicken has ever known.’ Or: ‘Gloria is wedded to the egg, not the idea of the egg. If the egg is removed, her memory of the egg goes with it.’ Or: ‘A chicken speaks of the moment.’

She needs that example. They are happier than she is: for them ‘each morning [is] a bright and solitary gem’. She loves them with mad intensity and raging inadequacy because, like her — and because of her —they are separated from motherhood. She feeds them scratch which is ‘50 per cent cream cakes’, longs to hold a chick ‘to cup the tiny charm of its heart’ and wonders, in all seriousness, if chickens dream. She watches Miss Hennepin County fight sleep:

I have never seen a chicken fight sleep, have always considered fighting sleep a form of ambition, so that now I must amend my view of chickens to include ambition in some raw form.

The writing is so obsessive (she learns monomania from her chickens and looks in tiny places, as they do) it is addictive to read.

The chickens ease her grief, and, as they do, she needs them less. This creates a problem that both harms her and helps the novel. I won’t reveal it here, but two things emerge: first, Jackie Polzin is a marvellous writer, like Joan Didion without the insufferable parts; and second, perhaps her fictional chicken- keeper should buy a sturdy henhouse, such as an Eglu from Omlet, in which my own chickens, who I now try to watch with the keenness of her eye, sleep safe.

But perhaps she identified too much with them. Their journey is together, a tale of co-dependency between woman and bird, and reluctantly and absolutely, they are consumed by it. She prophesised it herself: ‘The more I care for them, the less I know.’

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