Owen Tanner has never met anyone else who has a chatty bird in their chest. From the moment Gail emerged between Owens ribs, his mother knew that she had to hide him away from the world. After a decade spent in hiding, Owen takes a brazen trip outdoors in the middle of a forest fire, and his life is upended forever. Suddenly, Owen is forced to flee the home that had once felt so confining and hide in plain sight with his uncle and cousin in Washington. There, he feels the joy of finding a family among friends; of sharing the bird in his chest and being embraced fully; of falling in love and feeling the devastating heartbreak of rejection before finding a spark of happiness in the most unexpected place; of living his truth regardless of how hard the thieves of joy may try to tear him down. But the threat of the Army of Acronyms is a constant, looming presence, making Owen wonder if hell ever find a way out of the cycle of fear.
In spite of its genre trappings, this book is something altogether slower and more meditative than the standard fare—and all the better for it ... Readers of all races, creeds, sexual orientations and genders will recognize Owen's feelings of misplacement—but queer readers perhaps will find something more. Emme Lund, a transgender woman, suffuses her narrative with clear-sighted metaphors for teen alienation, though her story will likely carry particular resonance for readers who feel out of step with their bodies or genders. The Boy With a Bird in His Chest offers a much-needed corrective to the average coming-of-age fantasy, as Lund tenderly and deftly walks us through the process of making peace with the fragile animal we all carry around with us, showing us how to let it live and breathe in a hostile world.
[A] stunning, gut-wrenching, magical realist debut novel ... Lund’s novel bursts through our 2022 malaise with a new, and necessary kind of storytelling, one that gives a roadmap for moving through trauma to a place of healing ... Some of the beats of the coming-of-age novel are familiar here, especially its depictions of queer pain and suffering at the hands of bullies, of young gay heartbreak, of yearning for connection and safety. But the novel’s magical realist elements provide a constant state of suspense, sharing with us a world full of wonder, surprise, and, yes, queer joy ... The novel is full of delightful teenage detours through punk rock, moon magic, even body-enlivening masturbation. There is crushing pain and liberating beauty. There is reverence and irreverence all swirling in the same soup ... Lund’s novel dares to imagine what it means to experience or witness such traumas, while still seeking joy and systems of healing.
When I sat down to read Emme Lund’s debut novel, The Boy with a Bird in His Chest, I was expecting to encounter a playfully didactic allegory; however, while the story is certainly playful and arguably didactic, I quickly realized that it was also much more: invitingly poetic, defiantly queer, and lyrical to boot. What I ultimately found (and relished) was a staunchly unorthodox coming-of-age tale dramatizing the tensions that can arise between connection and concealment, between our drive to be seen and our need to be safe ... the novel reads less like allegory and more like standard magical realism, an exploration of bird-chestedness per se rather than as a symbol of queerness ... The book spotlights queer characters, investigates queer situations (bullying, anal, oral, risk-defying PDA), and explores queer themes (the desire for out-ness, distrust of conventional society), deftly evoking tropes while averting cliché. These queer-focused subplots are often both impactful and absorbing: they are relatable, they are thought-provoking, they prompt break-through moments with our therapists three days later ... Impediments arise only when we readers fall short in our ability to identify with Owen immediately. At times for better and at times arguably otherwise, the novel often opts not to explicitly render or contextualize certain emotions and thought processes, seemingly expecting that we’ll make the connections ourselves (and leaving us guessing should we fail to do so) ... What comes across regardless is the convincing portrayal of a magical alternate world, one which we are then enabled to compare against our own.