I read this short novel in one sitting, captured by the distinctive first person narration of the unnamed main character. She’s raising chickens, four multi-colored, empty-headed creatures that occupy a great deal of her time and thoughts. In the first few chapters, I had to keep reminding myself that Brood is fiction, not memoir; that’s how real it felt. It’s also an indication of author’s skill. There are only a few additional characters: Percy, the narrator’s husband; her mother; Helen, her real estate agent friend; a few neighbors who stop by. There’s not much plot; it’s not the point of the novel.
We accompany the narrator on her chores taking care of the chickens through the frigid Minnesota winter, record-breaking heat in summer, and a tornado. She also cleans houses for her realtor friend. Through these activities we are part of her thoughts and a darker aspect of the novel begins to surface, an undercurrent of grief and loss. Caring for the chickens is more than just a mundane activity or hobby. Despite this undercurrent, the novel is filled with humor. One of the chickens–the alpha hen–is named Miss Hennepin County. Gloria, another chicken, “stood distant watch over the garden like a member of the Secret Service, eyes, unblinking.” Rabbits in the garden are like “zaftig trolls.” A raccoon loads up garbage in an old briefcase and toddles off, as if to another job. At her mother’s house, a greying piece of meat is “resurrected with the life force of ketchup.”
It’s hard to believe that this is a debut novel; it’s filled with such astute observations. The narrator carries her grief alone: “Life is the ongoing effort to live.” Her tactless friend, Helen, “errs most often on the side of talking.” Her husband, Percy, waits, oblivious to her pain, to hear about an academic appointment that will mean a move to a town where they can’t take the chickens. What will happen to the chickens? The contrast between the chickens, who only know the present moment, and the narrator, who knows so much more, is the beating heart of this wonderful story.