*I received an advanced ecopy of this book via NetGalley. This has not influenced my review.*
I enjoyed this slow-paced, character-focused, queer coming-of-age story. There isn’t a goal-oriented plot, it’s more just about Owen’s life through his childhood and teen years, experiencing things, trying to keep his secret safe, and trying to find his place in the world as someone who is different. There’s a romance in the end, but not a lot of romance throughout. Owen deals with some harsh and realistic struggles, like homophobia and a mother who is pretty neglectful, but the story ends on an imperfect but hopeful note.
This is very much a book about being different and feeling unlovable but wanting love. About feeling like you have to hide your differences, whether because your safety would actually be at risk or because you’re worried what people might think. The bird in Owen’s chest could really symbolize any sort of difference that isn’t bad in and of itself but is made difficult because of other people’s judgment and prejudice. Though probably especially queerness because…
There are a lot of queer characters in this book, including Owen. No specific labels, but some mlm and wlw attraction and relationships, and kind of general queerness and just not super conforming to cishet norms.
The bird in chest element was an important part of the story in that it impacted everything from the plot to Owen’s view of the world and himself, but it was still kind of small and quiet. Presented in a kind of matter-of-fact way. Just part of Owen’s life.
The writing had this sort of floaty feel. Almost kind of hazy. A style that worked well for a book about a character who is sheltered and then thrust into a socially/emotionally-disorienting situation. (Owen had no schooling until high school and spent his life before that confined to his house with just his mom and bird.)
I have mixed feelings about the characters and relationships. Except for Owen (and maybe even a little bit Owen), they felt kinda flat. It could make sense from Owen’s POV, maybe he just didn’t know them super well, but I would’ve liked to know the character he was supposedly in love with a bit better. (I at least knew the love interest enough to know he was gentle and sweet.) The more I think about it, the more it feels like this was a solitary, in-his-own-head kind of story. I can remember time Owen spent with people that was kinda summarized, and other time that was more drawn-out and detailed but Owen was mostly in his thoughts and feelings. That could’ve been a purposeful choice by the author though, or I could be forgetting, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Owen didn’t seem to have a lot of strong bonds, and even some of the bonds he felt strongest were stretched and frayed.
There’s a lot you have to overlook though, a lot of suspension of disbelief, and it’s not just the whole “open chest, exposed organs that somehow never get infected, bird that talks but never eats” thing. It was also some nonsensical character decisions (like everything Owen’s mother did, though I guess sometimes people in real life do do nonsensical things) and unusual things being unquestioned by characters or not explained to the reader (like how Owen got enrolled in high school with no previous education, or how he got inhalers for his asthma if he never went to doctors).
Note: There’s teenage drinking and drug use, as well as some semi-explicit sex scenes (kind of like a summary more than super detailed).
And a few notes to clear up any genre confusion: I’ve seen the author say the book is not sci-fi/fantasy. However, people in real life don’t have giant holes in their chests with talking birds in them, so I still consider it a subgenre of fantasy. Possibly magical realism, since it takes place in a world where a lot of people have animals inside their bodies, and though they’re not exactly accepted, it’s a known thing. Also, the book is listed as “transgender fiction” on Amazon, but, though the author is trans and the bird in Owen’s chest may be a metaphor, there were no explicitly trans characters. Last but not least, although the book is about a teen, it’s not YA.
Overall, a somewhat bittersweet but hopeful novel about a sheltered boy with a bird in his chest coming of age, exploring his queerness, being different, and finding his place in the world.
Anyone who likes magical realism or literary fiction with a touch of the strange or fantastical, queer coming-of-age stories, characters struggling with being different, and hopeful endings.