Lund, Emme. The Boy with a Bird in His Chest. Atria Books. February 2022. 320 pgs. $27.00. HC. 9781982171933.
Five days after Owen Tanner is born, four days after his mother runs away from the hospital so that he can die comfortably at home instead of while being poked and prodded by doctors, a hole opens up in his chest. And a baby bird appears: Gail. He may spend the rest of his life running from doctors, police, and other members of what his mother has dubbed the Army of Acronyms, but as long as he has Gail he will be okay. Until he wants more.
The people who are part of Owen’s world through this strange coming-of-age are some of the most well-formed characters I have read in a long time. They are not perfect, not always kind, not always logical, but deeply rooted in some sense of humanity, so that we understand when they fail to be their best selves. While Owen is the only person he knows with a bird in his chest, he is far from the only person with a secret. Raised on the lessons that people can’t be trusted, and that the world is a dangerous place to live as your authentic self, Owen learns he can choose to believe those things, or he can abandon them cautiously. He can choose instead to share, to trust, and to love.
The quicker you suspend your disbelief, and surrender to the idea of an animal inhabiting a hollow created in a body, the better you’ll enjoy the magical realism that is both quiet and pervasive throughout the novel. This is not a book without plot holes, but getting to know these characters will mostly make up for them.
The obvious comparison here is Sweet Tooth, but this book is far more introspective and void of gore (though not of violence), and where Sweet Tooth provides history, context, and a populated “other-ed” cast, Lund’s novel zooms in on one person’s experience of growing up with a concealable difference. While this is not categorized as YA, it wouldn’t be a far reach.