By Marie-Helene Bertino
The protagonist of “Parakeet,” Marie-Helene Bertino’s new novel, is a 36-year-old woman, a week out from marrying a man she doesn’t love, whose dead grandmother has come back to taunt her in the form of a wisecracking bird. The bird grandmother gives our narrator a mission: to leave the Long Island hotel where she is camped out to “decompress,” and find her brother, a reclusive heroin addict and renowned playwright from whom she’s been estranged ever since he overdosed at his wedding years prior.
Then the bird defecates all over her wedding dress.
“On Saturday,” the unnamed narrator muses, “I will be a woman in a dress stepping over a threshold into married life. A bride. I will finally leave my family behind.” Over the course of the week, drifting between misadventures in a semi-lucid dream state populated by hallucinations and body-swapping and many, many bird metaphors, she is proved spectacularly wrong.
First she goes to work; it is her job to write victims’ case histories for “an injury attorney whose collar is never completely folded over the back of his tie.” We come to find out she is the survivor of a catastrophic injury herself, which has left her badly scarred in every possible sense, and the description of the attack is one of the book’s most visceral, gut-wrenching scenes.
Later in Manhattan, she meets up with her maid of honor, Rose, an uncharitable narcissist who looks at her like “a pile of laundry she hopes will be put away.” It is one of the most brutal renderings of the tiny cruelties in a toxic female friendship I have ever seen depicted.
When she ventures to Brooklyn to buy a replacement wedding dress from an online listing, the seller is her more free-spirited doppelgänger. This, days after her bird grandmother asks the prophetic hypothetical, “Would you recognize yourself if you met you on the street?”
When the narrator eventually finds her elusive brother, he is unrecognizable for reasons I won’t spoil here. Their estrangement is made more complicated by the fact that he’s made a career profiting off her traumatic past. And yet they reconnect, and the siblings’ relationship remains the emotional core of the book from there on out — as well as the narrator’s touchstone as she slips further away from reality toward her wedding, a suffocating affair she sleepwalks throughout and barely survives.
What is “Parakeet” about? It’s about an ambivalent bride. It’s about PTSD, grief, forgiveness, bad mothers, womanhood, monogamy and the nature of time itself. It’s about being a woman trapped by her subconscious and social conventions. It’s a Homeric quest to reclaim control over the heroine’s own life and sanity.
It’s also a story prone to soap-operatic revelations and Big Events; but the events are presented in a way that’s more matter-of-fact than melodramatic, and the effect is absurd, and at times deeply funny. The result is a story that is disquieting and darkly comic and vulnerable and true. I laughed throughout; I winced more.
Bertino makes her literary allusions overtly, almost winkingly. The hotel hallways twist into an infinite labyrinth like “a Borgesian nightmare.” When the narrator wakes up suddenly inhabiting another body she quips about Kafka’s Gregor Samsa. There’s a Chekhovian gun in the first act that fires in the third. Surrealist chapters like these could exist as stand-alone short stories of the sort that Bertino has previously written.
Whatever the references, though, Bertino’s prose is wholly her own. And though her protagonist’s world is governed by dream logic, it’s a credit to the author’s craftsmanship that her characters’ struggles feel grounded in reality. Bertino’s writing is lyrical and sharp and she deploys magical realism alongside a fart joke with equal self-assurance.
During a heated exchange, a man with (one of my favorite descriptions in the book) “frat boy resting face” demands to know who she is. “I am a bird trapped inside another person’s life,” she answers to herself, “sensing its mistake and trying to exit against relentless glass.” By the end of the book, for better or for worse, she does.
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