Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino
Publication date: June 2, 2020
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Literary, Magical Realism
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It’s the week before her wedding when the Bride sees her grandmother. Not unusual except her grandmother has been dead for over ten years and what she sees is a parakeet who talks to her. Grandma parakeet is worried about the impending wedding, but more importantly she wants the Bride to find her older brother, Tom, whom she hasn’t seen in seven years. She threatens her with all kinds of dire misfortune from beyond the grave so the Bride agrees. As she lives in Queens and her brother lives in Manhattan the search is not an onerous one. Instead, Parakeet is a quirky novel of one bride’s largely metaphysical voyage to discover how she lost not only the brother she loved, but the person she once was.
It’s worth noting that the Bride last saw Tom at his own wedding, when his bride asked her to find and buy heroin so he wouldn’t go through withdrawal during the ceremony and reception. That went as well as expected and the entire family cut ties with him. He goes on to become a playwright and a recluse and in trying to see him, the Bride has to reconstruct her past, a painful and confusing process. Bertino blends the jumbled, schizoid process of getting married (and being ambivalent about it) with trying to reconnect with a loved one who is no longer the same person.
She does the job almost too well. Bertino still has a delicious wry way of putting nouns and verbs in odd combinations that is bewitching, but where it was whimsical in her last novel, 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, it becomes frenetic and jarring in Parakeet. Much like the hyper little bird itself Parakeet’s story jumped and flitted through iterations of magical realism—at one point the Bride finds herself in her mother’s body—that made my brain hurt.
I concede that a distracted mind has become the status quo for me with all the upheaval in America right now. I can’t say for certainty that any genre will or will not work for me. But where Cat’s Pajamas had a whimsicality that made me fall in love (and makes me wonder if I should read it again), Parakeet felt frantic and overloaded. This is a 36-year-old woman, not a young girl, so her reluctance and the mental crisis it causes feels off-kilter. We only learn later the Bride suffered a vicious attack when she was in her twenties. This gives more weight to her splintering mind, but the rhythm of the novel never settled into one I could relax into. If you’re in a space of calm then Parakeet still showcases Bertino’s freshness. The final chapter is poignant and tender, but came too late for me.
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