Unferth’s gift as a short story writer is evidenced in this novel, her second: Within moments of being introduced to these characters, we know them intimately, care about them deeply ... The narrative throughout often mo ves outside of linear time, zooming into alternate pasts and certain futures, and to great effect ... At times, though, I felt I’d reached my capacity for caring about new characters ... But the chickens! What marvelous creatures! ... The thorough research Unferth must have done on the historical, cultural and agricultural aspects of hens and roosters is woven naturally throughout the text, and many of these characters are motivated to take action for the sake of these animals’ rights. Barn 8 is a beautiful, urgent, politically charged book with a huge heart, and while the plot is sometimes madcap, well, so is love.
...insights into chicken civilization are scattered throughout Deb Olin Unferth’s kaleidoscopic sixth book ... The architecture of this very real industry (which could stand as metaphor for any of the behemoth industries that seem to stork-drop products and services on demand) is sickening and overwhelming, yet Unferth never traffics in gratuitous shock. Instead, her sentences and constantly shifting point of view are embroidered with a great deal of unexpected tenderness and optimism ... the inhabitants of Unferth’s Midwestern galaxy are compelling, frustrating and utterly, haplessly human in their ability to contradict themselves while falling into and out of breathless, befuddled love. Somehow, through a delightful conjuring ... Though Barn 8 is a political novel punctuated with excellent, terrifying reporting from inside the belly of the American agricultural beast, it is not a diatribe; rather, it’s a call into the universe, a probing that asks: What if we the disconnected, we the too connected, we the individual data sets decided to do something, even if it felt like an impossible activist fantasy?
Instead of a ham-fisted effort to confront the reader with the evils of the world, the author has put forth an incredibly nimble and frequently amusing book worthy of its deathly serious subject, one that invites the reader to think rather than merely witness ... Like the greatest social novels...Barn 8 focuses on the individual lives of its many characters ... Chapters about the chicken heist are action-packed and propulsive. Unferth has a highly individual way of spinning a ripping yarn, one that uses ethology, paleontology, European history, and contemporary agricultural methods. Further, she imbues her characters with funny and wise observations ... Barn 8...pings around different times, places, and species while asking profound questions that it even sometimes answers ... While Janey and her compelling personal journey invite the reader in, even the most minor characters feel terribly alive.
... bracing ... Satirical and smart, veering from hilarious comedy to incisive commentary, Barn 8 demands that we reconsider our unexamined lives. Somewhere, in that great activist desert in the sky, Edward Abbey and his Monkey Wrench Gang are applauding ... Where Unferth’s sympathies lie is obvious, though she is never sanctimonious and even offers up an argument for cheap factory farming ... Unferth excels at the grim details of barn life. But she’s also a terrific comic writer, and her forays into chicken history and psychology are delightful[.]
She’s a wildly creative, sharply insightful, and deeply compassionate writer (not to mention funny!) ... Separated into four sections and a brief epilogue, Unferth shifts adroitly between narrators giving the novel a rich variety of points of view, including a foray into the philosophy of chickens themselves ... Although the novel is written in Unferth’s signature concise and elegant prose with a clear forward moving plot, there’s enough here to warrant slow and careful reading ... rewarding and deeply moving.
... a wildly inventive novel ... It’s a powerful book and a dazzling feat of imagination from one of the country’s most exciting authors ... Unferth has chosen a fascinating, unusual structure for Barn 8 ... It’s a testament to Unferth’s talent that she’s able to pull this off; the brief chapters featuring [the hen] Bwwaauk are surprisingly tender and somehow never come across as gimmicky. An omniscient narrator punctuates the story with explanations of what will happen in the future. These are all risky choices, but in Unferth’s capable hands, they work Barn 8 is unmistakably a social novel in the vein of The Jungle. Unlike Upton Sinclair’s book, though, this isn’t a heavy-handed critique masquerading as a work of fiction. The farmers and animal-rights activists are all portrayed as complex people, sometimes noble, often flawed, and not stand-ins for ideas ... Remarkably, Unferth finds ways to leaven the novel with humor ... It’s bleak, but also brilliant. Unferth is a gifted writer with a sprawling imagination and a message that the country desperately needs to hear: When we hurt animals, we also hurt ourselves, and our dishonesty and apathy serve no good purpose.
If this sounds like a funny book, that’s because it is one. Let’s face it: chickens are funny, and so are eggs. Yes, chickens are intelligent, fierce, gorgeous creatures, and eggs are incredible feats of nature, all of which we learn in Barn 8, which sometimes reads like poetry, sometimes like a scene from a movie, and sometimes like a transcribed biology lecture from your most charismatic professor. Still, there’s something undeniably funny ... That Deb Olin Unferth is able to retain the humor throughout this book is remarkable, and while it speaks to her subject, it also speaks to her ability to cultivate a voice and perspective that is simultaneously realistic and absurd, speculative and premonitive, hopeful and hopeless. She achieves this by many means, including a collage-like form ... thrilling ... nuanced ... Not only does Olin Unferth show the same events from multiple points of view, she provides context for each perspective, fleshing out the history of every character she introduces, not through summary but through scenes, the good guys (Animal Rights activists) and the bad guys (farmers) alike.
I loved this book, thoroughly enjoyed it in myriad ways ... a fabulous novel, a
rollicking read, one that leaves you feeling a little lost and a lot seen ... Unferth writes with a fierce and wise sense of justice and fun, never bothering to ask, 'What’s the point?' She knows better than that. Instead, she has written her brains out and given us all this absolute shivering pleasure of a book ... reads like a movie, fast and funny, with achingly visual sentences .... This book doesn’t preach or plead; it simply tells the truth in the form of a great story, in an entertaining and shame-free way, narrated by a host of characters that are resonant ... At times, the author speaks directly to the reader, which I found exciting and respectful. It helped yank me out of a story that’s at times—necessarily quite lunatic. Deb Olin Unferth verbalizes the vague unease I feel living in this militarized and money-obsessed country that still manages to be full of wonderful people.
It...is full of grit, humour and tenderness. But...this novel suffers from a lack of narrative thrust ... A motley crew of activists ... The chickens themselves become, joyously, a kind of character en masse ... Victim to this impressive chorus is tension. Barn 8 is a story about the beauty of life taking an unexpected turn, and about how, in caring for an animal, we can improve our own lot. But the heist? Not as interesting as what goes on inside the head of a young activist—or a chicken, as it turns out.
Somewhere between two novellas and a novel, Olin Unferth’s sixth book is part-Bildungsroman, part-heist, part-history of industrial husbandry. Non-chronological and ornithological ... With all this jumping about, it’s easy to find yourself looking the wrong way when something noteworthy happens. Stand back to contemplate how weird it is that we eat birds and you’ll miss something small and charming ... When it is explained that the chicken’s eye has multiple points of simultaneous focus, it feels pointed, as if the inattentive reader is being rebuked. Lurking among the quirks and capers are the ethical and logistical dilemmas of activism.
... the steadily rising, impressively credentialed author stares a massive foe in the face and works tirelessly—wit and incisive writing her only weapons—to vanquish it. This foe is a character of the story as much as any other: corporate egg farming. Her dedication to the topic is more than apparent, and her research speaks for itself. Here is an author so committed to her story that she spent hours in coops, listening to chickens, and giving them human voices ... At times, Unferth’s reliance of prophesying can feel heavy-handed, even for a book with animal rights and activism at its core ... when the book dips into bleak, end-of-humanity prophecies, we’re sucked a bit too far away from the hens and farm at the heart of the story. The trick of Unferth’s writing is the sly, almost deceptive nature of it. Portions of text are segmented into bite-size pieces illuminating the goings-on of various characters, an effective device for moving the plot forward while conveying the frenetic and chaotic energy of the characters and the story. You feel jostled about. This is intentional. You are drawn in by a keen feeling of levity, a world of humor surrounding the antics of a chicken-thieving egg auditor and her painfully uncoordinated team. You are hooked by the larger-than-life heist just in time to be caught off guard by the gravity of the facts Unferth laces in. You will learn things in these pages, things you may wish you didn’t know. And that is absolutely the point. The language of Barn 8 is riveting and masterful ... a stunning, stark, and twisted tale that defies the borders of what a heist book or a farm book or even a novel can be.
The novel feels researched but not pedantic ... Unferth doesn’t intend to gross us out, but her book doesn’t look away from commercial agriculture’s attempts to adapt nature for the market ... it’s when the heist plot kicks in, and we meet a whole parade of well-intentioned kooks, that Barn 8 comes alive. Counterintuitive, maybe, but the caper reveals how serious a book this is ... That is not to suggest the novel is a catalog of horrors or a sanctimonious lecture. There’s a joy here, in no small part because of Unferth’s sentences, which are muscular and musical and confident. Beyond Barn 8’s political concerns is an interest in life itself ... For those who believe in animal liberation, the question is not political, but moral; my own wavering about the consumption of meat may be unimaginable to them. I was expecting (fine, dreading) a novel that simply gave voice to that conviction, that yelled at a wall. But Unferth is writing in good faith, and she’s also talking about something bigger. She’s a capable guide to the unsettling feeling that governs modern life, a feeling that is very much tied to the billions of animals we eat every year ... Humans have just about finished the hard work of destroying ourselves, and we’re seeing more and more art that mourns that fact. This novel does that, with a sly grin. We might be sad about the end of humanity, but the chickens are probably relieved.
... a generous sympathy for every one of its many wayward characters ... The very idea of a hen heist on that scale is in itself laughable, not to mention implausible, and Unferth does nothing to put lipstick on that fowl. What she does do – and in a way that is unexpectedly endearing – is show us how this band of ragtag malcontents commit to it and almost pull off the damn thing ... even as Unferth gets us laughing, she gets us to care ... Unferth not only gives us details about the supporting characters in this tale, she frequently lets us see how it's playing out through their eyes ... Unferth's inventive, engaging approach is like the eyes of a chicken as she describes them: 'They work separately, have multiple objects of focus. When they cock their heads, they're getting a series of snapshots from different perspectives' ... Barn 8 is Unferth's series of snapshots printed like fine-art photographs and exhibited in a gallery where they tell a story at once intimate and epic, preposterous and honest, disparaging and vulnerable. It's a story more expansive than its plot would suggest, embracing a diversity of lives – even some in alternate universes – and spanning prehistoric eras to a time beyond our imagining. But even though it instructs us that the chickens were here long before we were and will have the last word (or should that be cluck?) long after we're gone, this tale of chickens is always completely, compassionately human.
Unferth is no stranger to revolution. She literally wrote a book about it. In her self-deprecating memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, Unferth sharpened her wit against the turmoil of her naïve journey through three war-torn Central American countries in the late 1980s. She approaches Barn 8 in much the same way. While she handles core social issues with care, neither side of said controversy escapes her irreverent, satirical style ... Unferth’s approach is innovative throughout. Her story ranges from prehistoric times to beyond the existence of humans. She shifts character point of view often and seamlessly among a large cast of characters, including a chaotic ride through the hive mind of one hundred activists. Unferth is also able to drop a ton of humorous and often shocking information about gallus gallus domesticus and Big Ag and make it land like a feather with her ingenious pacing and structure ... difficult to categorize, which is by far its greatest appeal. While humor helps cut the sting of the dark reality of horrific farming practices, this is a character-driven novel that spans the emotional spectrum. Unferth shows us that, though we are flawed and bound to fail at times, we are defined by our convictions and those dear to us will help us through the worst of it—if we let them.
... wild and pacey ... It’s not a novel’s job to inform, but if it has a few well-constructed, enjoyable lessons like this and they serve the art itself, then it’s nothing to complain about. Thankfully, didacticism is not Unferth’s style. This is her sixth book. She’s honed her writing in a range of forms, from memoir, poetry and short story. Her dexterity shows...She’s a playful and digressive writer with a keen psychological insight, but one which doesn’t overburden the reader with heavy interiority. She understands how our imaginations clash with reality, how we fumble through our days moving between who we are and who we could be ... This is one reason Barn 8 is so interesting and much more than a crazy plot. Unferth questions the motives of all and sundry and explores what moral acts mean in a world of compromised politics ... contains complex depths: it is a novel about finding a home in the world and breaking free of the production line mentality of modern life, but also an exploration of the different fates that befall people – and chickens – when some life-altering opportunity comes along.
Barn 8 deftly weaves between...galactic scale and the gritty particulars ... Unferth captures the continuity between the individual unit and the churn of the universe ... Unferth excels at telling rich stories about ill-advised and partially self-generated disasters ... In Barn 8, Unferth again captures the hysteric effort of living.
A decision to eschew the omelet and order a salad instead would be a testament to the efficacy of Deb Olin Unferth’s unnervingly vivid descriptions of industrial egg production in Barn 8 ... journalistic passages and others devoted to chickens in myth and history...vie for attention with a plot that grows increasingly predictable, despite the introduction of storytelling switch-ups like interrogation transcripts and journal entries ... Janey and Cleveland, whose backstories and intriguing odd-couple friendship take up the novel’s first seventy pages, get somewhat lost amid the heist’s hectic doings...and a welter of characters ... Meanwhile, Janey’s maturation in the wake of her maternal loss, the origins of Cleveland’s discontent, and the psychological nuances of their pseudo-mother-daughter relationship could have been further explored; indeed, these women alone might have carried the entire book ... Barn 8’s chief draw and accomplishment is Unferth’s adeptness at wringing lyricism from the sordid domain of animal farming. The strong notes of reportorial advocacy...strike with memorable imagistic force. From her unflinching focus on cruelty and excrement she raises her discerning, prophetic eye ... Who does care about 'stupid chickens' is a question that infuses this novel with a piercing, personal intensity. Unferth makes the unseen shit visible, and reminds her reader that however much we want to look up or look away, it is stubbornly always there, right at the end of our forks.
... dazzling ... At times, particularly in the latter half of the book, the structure, or lack thereof, leads to confusion. Readers may struggle to move from section to section. Scenes frequently start after the action has occurred and work backwards to explain. Snapshots of side characters become impenetrable as the cast count rises ... We spend so much time trying to figure out where we are in the story, it can, on occasion, be hard to care – a shame in an otherwise vibrant novel. The plot itself is thankfully more straightforward ... Janey is a wonderful creation, alive on the page, full of spiky dialogue with the adults who surround her ... Unferth turns on its head the old line that all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. The author captures the frenetic quality of 21st century activism, asking us to consider both activism and refusal to act ... the prose is intricate and vibrant, and the pace is relentless as the author pushes her story to its inventive end. Characters are brightly drawn, dialogue is snappy, and the topicality of the book, at a time when many are questioning the manufacturing processes behind animal food produce, makes it read like a comi-tragic manifesto of our age.
... strange and brilliant ... If the book has a weakness, it’s in its relationship with the farming community in which it’s set...its least appealing element is how it draws rural, working-class lives as one-dimensional, meaningless and devoid of emotional connection...Presumably, [Unferth] is trying to make the point that all life is turning into a battery farm experience, but since only the rural working-class characters get this treatment, it remains jarring ... The chicken-related writing, however, is a force unto itself. If you thought you didn’t care about chickens, Unferth is here to prove you wrong. Throughout, she makes us feel them as minds ... The meticulous, science-fictional descriptions of the alien atmosphere of factory farming are also astonishing ... Perhaps from a fear of anthropomorphism, though, Unferth almost entirely forgoes making the chickens characters in their own right. We’re told the birds have names for each other, but none of them emerges as a personality; we’re told they are highly social creatures, but never see their relationships. None of the humans ever develops a bond with a particular chicken, either, so it’s hard to become emotionally invested in the heist’s success. The book’s realism also works against our caring: we’re repeatedly reminded that battery hens are unsuited to life outside and that, even as an act of public protest, their liberation is unlikely to change anything. It’s a tribute to Unferth’s charm that this never becomes depressing, and she even delivers a kind of happy ending ... Ultimately, although the book is uneven, the things in Barn 8 that work are so aesthetically perfect and philosophically profound that it doesn’t matter much if the caper plot falls a little flat, or if its depiction of working-class life feels heavy-handed. It’s an enthralling book whose parts are more than the sum of its whole. Most of all, it’s marvellously effective in making us feel the crisis at its centre: the everyday torture of billions of animals in the service of a system that will ultimately destroy us all.
... a screwball caper that wears its seriousness lightly ... Immersing us in the heady scenes and lingo of activist and agricultural life, Unferth trusts that we’ll catch up. At times the narrative resembles a gonzo documentary voiced by those caught in the fallout of the bungled mission; at other times we stick close to the perspective of the main characters, rooting for them as they get in over their heads ... Written with vim and wit, Barn 8 is a highly enjoyable treatment of a worthwhile social issue. Part of what makes it so much fun is Unferth’s relentlessly playful manipulation of the material. Turning the story round to present new angles, zooming in and out, she makes the vogue for plain present-tense narration seem austere by comparison. While she’s often very funny, she sidesteps the obvious pitfall of caricaturing the ideologues she’s writing about, even as she lets us laugh. Airing their emotional hangups, Unferth suggests they have complex motives without minimising the force of their beliefs. Nor does the novel proselytise –although it’s enough of an eye-opener to give you pause next time you make an omelette.
... a coming-of-age tale before it becomes a fairytale, then a radical manifesto turned love story. It’s an accumulation of styles to weave the entirety of the story. It’s a mysterious interview, a séance to alternative timelines, and the story of Bwwaauk, a hen on the lam ... Paragraphs move from interviews, interrogations, perspectives from a chicken, and chapters set in parenthesis, but the power of the prose lies within the omniscient narrator...The Vonnegut and Sontag influences are abundant and justified ... Despite the divine intervention, Unferth is careful to use the characters to tell the story. I grew weary reading work about farms or small-town life in Iowa, afraid the writer will reduce my homeland to a handful of blue-collar stereotypes. But Unferth is deft at steering the narrative toward a criticism of industrial agriculture, rather than small, family-owned farms, as well as giving characters whole identities ... heavily researched from the experience of USDA inspectors and of egg production facilities, down to the experience and brain functions of an average Leghorn chicken. If I’m still not personally a fan, after reading Barn 8, I have, at least, grown to appreciate chickens.
In this outrageous piece of rural noir and pitch-perfect characterization, Unferth recalls Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang with a dose of vegan-minded quirk. This entertaining, satisfying genre turn shows off Unferth’s range, and readers will be delighted by the characters’ earnest crusade.
A daring writer of wit, imagination, and conscience, Unferth has transformed her foray into hen hell into an adroitly narrated, fast-paced, yet complexly dimensional novel about emotional and environmental devastation ... Unferth sharply illuminates the contrariness of human nature, celebrates the evolutionary marvels of chickens, and exposes the horrors of the egg industry. Unferth’s vividly provoking and revelatory work of ecofiction spiked with mordant humor and powered by love joins the ranks of Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole (2002), Sara Gruen’s Ape House (2010), Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), and Abby Geni’s The Wildlands (2018).
Ignited by her fiery wit and distinctive voice, Unferth’s novel uses one of America’s most valuable and overlooked institutions as fertile ground to raise questions around the truths people are fed and the ones they turn a blind eye to. In a nation that produces about 75 billion eggs a year, she shrewdly points out that it’s basically become 'our patriotic duty' to eat them. While this kind of politically charged rhetoric could risk coming off as pedantic, Unferth’s writing never feels patronizing—more than anything, it’s galvanizing, especially these days when 'activism [is] less revolution, more capitalism with a conscience' ... If this novel isn’t a movement, it has enough heart to start one.