Emme Lund's debut novel "The Boy With a Bird in His Chest" is not your typical coming-of-age fantasy. The book features more than a few standard markers of that genre — for instance, the title is no passing metaphor. Our teenaged protagonist, Owen Tanner, actually does have a bird living in his rib cage, with part of his chest cavity open to the air so that the bird can poke its beak through his exposed ribs.
But as opposed to your "Twilights" or "Harry Potters," this story focuses in large part on the relationship between bird and boy rather than the magical world-building that would make their relationship possible.
Lund zooms in close on personal moments of introspection, as Owen comes to terms with what sets him apart from other boys his age. Owen and his bird, Gail, share a relationship more like that of magician and familiar rather than pet and owner, and they do not always get along. As much as Gail depends upon Owen to feed and protect her, the boy also seems to need the bird for approval and affection. Gail endangers Owen, but she also completes him, forms a symbiosis with him that he could not live without.
The unfolding drama between boy and bird embodies the halting, sometimes awkward dance between a teenager's inward self and his public body, and comes to symbolize the familiar struggle to come to terms with one's own difference.
They live under constant threat of discovery by outsiders, or so says his mother, an alcoholic but loving parent who works tirelessly to protect her son. Owen's mother knows that the world of doctors and government agents — ominously named the Army of Acronyms — would jump at the chance to put Owen and Gail under their microscope, ripping apart their family in the process.
So the strange threesome of mother, child and bird live in secrecy for years, until one day when Owen decides to start venturing outside their small suburban household to explore and quickly draws the attention of prying eyes.
Again, if that sounds like the premise of a ripping yarn with the narrative pacing of those young adult fantasies already mentioned, think again. 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.
Most of the story takes place in Owen's mind as we follow his personal musings on the teenage social world from which he has been excluded, and his yearnings for human connection. 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.
Nathan Pensky is a recent Ph.D. graduate from Carnegie Mellon University.
The Boy With a Bird in His Chest
By: Emme Lund.
Publisher: Atria, 308 pages, $27.