The Boy with a Bird in His Chest
Atria Books (2022)
$24.84 on Bookshop
“Even from the tree he could see that they knew they belonged in that field, in the world. He couldn’t fathom taking up space like that, not caring if you were noticed.” The Boy with a Bird in His Chest introduces us to Owen Tanner, a young boy living with a secret: a bird by the name of Gail appears in his chest just five days after his birth, where she lives nestled next to his heart, his lungs, the skin open and exposed to her home inside Owen. In Emme Lund’s world of fabulism, these individuals are referred to as “Terrors,” children born with animals hidden inside them.
Janice, Owen’s mother, is terrified for her child’s safety. She confines him to their home, convinced that people will find her son and experiment on him, people she refers to as “The Army of Acronyms.”
“No one can know,” she tells him, tapping her chest with two fingers, mirroring the place where Gail resides in Owen.
“‘No one, ever.’”
It’s a fear that Owen grows suspicious of, until he is brought to the hospital after an asthma attack. When the doctor and nurse assigned to Owen see the exposed ribs where Gail calls home, their fear of him is immediate. “The doctor and Nurse Olivia looked at Owen in horror. There was nothing in their medical training that could have prepared them for the monster they were witnessing here in their very own clinic. Owen understood why people like him were known as Terrors. (Their word, not ours.)”
After escaping the clinic, in which the doctor promptly begins to stalk Owen’s mother, fixated on finding Owen for his own personal gain, Janice leaves her son at her brother’s house, where Owen spends his high school years living with his Uncle Bob and his cousin Tennessee.
His fear of the Army of Acronyms follows him everywhere, with panicked phone calls from his mother, to learning that the doctor from the clinic is still out to find Owen, but it is here at his cousin’s home where the boy with the bird in his chest first begins learning that he, too, is allowed to take up space. That he, too, deserves to be seen. To be loved.
So much of being queer, at least in the beginning, seems to revolve around hiding. Around shame. Whether you’re queer, trans, or a combination thereof, many of us are told from the onset that how we were born is something to be ashamed of, something that we need to “fix” or “hide.” Something that will bring us, as Owen finds out from a group of boys who beat him on the way home from school, “the wrong kind of attention.”
And yet, it is in this house with this cousin where Owen first learns that the bird in his chest doesn’t make him terrifying, but beautiful. After being told for years by his mother not to show anyone, Owen reveals Gail to Tennessee, who accepts Owen on the spot. The cousins become close, and Tennessee begins introducing him to her people, where Owen—in a queer right of passage—begins the journey of discovering what it means to have chosen family.
It is through this journey that Owen finds Clyde. Left to my own devices, I could write an entirely separate book review on this character alone, which is a long way of saying I love him. Clyde is introduced to the readers through Tennessee as an “Evangelical Blowhard.” He wears T-shirts with jars of pickles that say “Relish Sweet Jesus.” His father is terrifying. It is easy to understand, especially from a queer perspective, why someone would see Clyde and instinctively stay away. Easy to understand, from Owen’s perspective, why he would perceive Clyde as a threat.
But as someone who grew up with men prone to violence, as someone who grew up in a deeply conservative household, as someone who grew up closeted in that house, closeted in that church, watching their father preach about the sin of homosexuality from behind the pulpit, I saw Clyde. And so, eventually, does Owen.
After Owen is attacked after school by the aforementioned group of boys, it is Clyde that comes to his aid. It’s Clyde who takes him home, who all but carries Owen to Tennessee's doorstep. And it is through this first meeting, this first real interaction between the two, that Owen begins to see Clyde for who he really is. Once Owen is fully recovered, he comes across Clyde in his backyard (the two are neighbors) where Clyde is found sitting on his horse, not moving, admiring a doe in the distance. Owen studies him for the first time, his observations unfiltered by his cousin, and sees what he never could before. “[Clyde’s] hair was buzzed short, the straight-boy uniform, but Clyde didn’t seem like the boys will be boys type. [. . .] Owen watched the space where Clyde and his horse had been, a man-sized hole, but something different from the space-taking lineage. Owen couldn’t explain it, but there was something gentle and quiet there.”
Clyde, too, is frighteningly aware of that space-taking lineage. When Owen disappears in a moment of terror, Clyde is terrified of losing the person he loves most. Fear, as it’s wont to do, comes out as anger, but he catches himself. “[Clyde] lifts his hand to slap the table but stops short. He is trying to undo generations of men slamming their hands on tables. [He] lets a little bit of the anger through, just enough that he feels it, but not so much he becomes it.”
Perhaps this is my own bias, writing about this book from a trans man’s perspective, but I see so much of myself in Clyde. While not trans himself (at least as far as we know) Clyde’s careful treading of masculinity—his reshaping it, his fear of it, the constant breaking away from his father’s lineage, the conscious shattering of what it means to be a “real man”—Clyde’s character felt so deeply personal, and it was refreshing to see a child born to that household that wasn’t villainized. Refreshing to see a character breaking away, rather than being played as the usual trope in this narrative—the evil, gay-hating Christian—to have a writer in the world like Lund who understands that Clyde, too, is a victim of this, to understand what it would be like to grow up in a house under that kind of rule.
The romance that blossoms between the two boys is my favorite queer relationship since Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. It is the epitome of empathy, of found family, of learning to love yourself, of learning that—despite what the world has told you all your life—you, too, are allowed to take up space.
The Boy with a Bird in His Chest is a beautiful rendering of all this and more, and I’m so deeply happy it exists in the world. I wish I had this when I was younger. I wish I had this when I was Owen’s age. Clyde’s age. But I am grateful to have it now. Grateful, and happy, for the generations of queer readers who will be able to add this book to their own lineage.
SAMUEL CLARK is a 2019 alumnus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he graduated with his MFA in fiction. He is the recipient of the LGBTQ+ writer scholarship for The Muse & The Marketplace 2019, a partial scholarship recipient to Sundress Academy for the Arts, and a 2021 candidate for the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. He lives in Colorado with his adopted cat, Emily D.