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Review: 'Parakeet' By Marie-Helene Bertino

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Marie-Helene Bertino (credit Sioux Nesi).jpg
Sioux Nesi

In Marie-Helene Bertino’s novel Parakeet, the unnamed protagonist is a 36-year-old bride-to-be who is visited by a bird that she immediately recognizes as her dead grandmother — a woman she loved and misses. She focuses on the blue line beneath the bird’s hematite eyes, a quizzical look, and the surprising interrogative: “What’s the Internet?” It had to be the grandmother, the bride surmises.

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Next, the grandmother — the parakeet — tells the main character not to get married.

Not get married? But what about all the plans she’s made? The plans she must keep making during this busy week before the big day? What about the promise of more promises? What will people think?

The parakeet’s next imperative is that rather than make one more plan for a wedding, the protagonist must go out and find her estranged brother, Tom. He’s a playwright who is rather renowned, but he suffers from addiction. The two had a good relationship — a deep and abiding sibling love — in childhood. But their bond is broken.

The bride is already in an anxious and nervous state to begin with, but with this inciting incident begins a journey story, that becomes a mystery full of suspense.

We also learn about her co-workers and friends and others who help us understand the protagonist’s ambivalence about her wedding, her marriage.

The picture that emerges of the main character is one of a life that is troubled — full of perhaps the trials and travails many of us carry around — of profound grief, trauma, and the things that women must carry with them as they live among a society that can boast #MeToo movement alongside broken systems that blame victims.

As the bride embarks on this journey, the narrative shifts to a surreal, dream-like story. Strange and inexplicable things happen — the bride temporarily inhabits her mother’s body, she meets a reptile as versed in the Internet as her luddite grandmother parakeet is not.

The bride is like that friend or co-worker — that one — so cynical and sarcastic that anything out of her mouth that isn’t dripping with acerbity seems suspect.

But we go along for the ride, the magic realism, the Chekhovian guns.

We also come to understand the bride for other qualities and qualms.

She is, we come to understand, a woman of color, ethnically ambiguous here, and how she has walked her path alone — in many complicated ways — including in one explosive exchange with the woman who is to be her mother-in-law.

Does the bride-to-be marry? Does she even buy a new dress after the parakeet spoils the first one? Will she find her brother? Sort of. What will be our protagonist’s next leg on this bewildering journey?

Bertino’s Parakeet is bleak — but it’s also funny. It’s a story about the long road to healing — from some of the worst things that can happen to us. It’s also an idiosyncratic and complicated narrative. For all those reasons it’s worth the circuitous path we traverse with the bride and the budgie down the aisle and beyond.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.