Dolly Parton, a woman who we can all agree is unequivocally herself (and her best self, at that), once advised to “find out who you are and do it on purpose.” I mention this not because Little Bird is about country singers or Tennessee, but because author Tiffany Meuret has so completely embodied this advice. Little Bird is a book that is itself, on purpose, and I am thoroughly impressed.
Little Bird is an odd book. It’s the kind of odd that’s the unique product of a single person’s mind–not a committee, not some genre-regurgitation cabal churning out Tolkien-likes, and maybe not even a Big Five publisher. Tiffany Meuret has written a moving story of grief and alcoholism through the medium of…a talking skeleton, semi-sentient vines, and a very food-motivated Chihuahua.
See? Odd. But it works. Josie is a customer relations consultant, a job for which she has a kind of weary but amused contempt. She performs it remotely, alone in her house but for her little dog Po. She wants this to be enough, but it isn’t, and she knows it. She drinks too much and avoids every attempt at non-work interaction, icing out her neighbor Sue as well as her mother and her ex-husband. The only person who might have been able to break through to her was her father, but he passed away and left Josie walled in with her grief.
Josie’s anger and sadness are palpable as she tries and fails to address her problems. Most poignant is the way she knows she has issues, but all her resolutions to improve collapse like wet cardboard at the enormity of her sadness. This self-defeat might be frustrating in some other book, but Meuret makes it agonizingly clear how these patterns aren’t annoyances but traps, deep pits that Josie can’t seem to get out of, even though she dug most of them herself.
It helps that Josie’s bitterness has made her snarky. She’s funny, and it’s hard not to be impressed by her wild defiance, even if the bravery is a thin front for her larger self-destructive impulses. And she’ll need it, because into this tightly-controlled mess comes…plants. An explosion of strange vines that seem weirdly aware of what’s going on around them start to spill over the bounds of her property. And worse, in the wake of the proliferation of flora is a human skeleton who retains some bizarrely human traits, like the ability to speak, and think, and sass Josie right back.
The skeleton–whose name, delightfully, is Skelly–has some decidedly super-human abilities, though. Her power is obscure but extensive, and she wants something from Josie. It’s not even big! She just wants a story.
What works: the characters, the snark, the deep compassion for suffering, the weird, Po the dog
What doesn’t: not quite clear goals for ending
Ideal Reader: anyone who has ever felt like an odd little bird (so: pretty much everyone)
What story can Josie possibly tell after getting stuck in the same routines in the same house? How can she say anything of consequence through the static of alcohol and the deep silences of grief? She doesn’t know. But she has three days to figure it out while even weirder things start happening.
I’d like to tell you that Josie is a postmodern Scheherazade, but that’s not what this is about. I’d also maybe consider saying that this is some kind of Gandalf-at-Bilbo’s-door thing, but…no, not really that. Is it horror, because of the overly persistent skeleton? Hm, no. What is this book? How can it so thoroughly defy every expectation?
I’m not saying there are no discernible influences or themes. Little Bird clearly wasn’t produced in a vacuum. But in this era when art is more accessible and digestible than ever before, it’s rare to find a novel that isn’t iterating on those themes. Talking skeletons usually belong in the bad guy’s camp, or at least in books about necromancy.
It’s also not that Little Bird is flawless. I was skeptical at some of the leaps Josie made in interpreting some of Skelly’s actions, and I’m left with some questions about what Josie’s purpose going forward will be.
However, none of this really detracts from the fact that this book is good. It’s one of the most deliriously, relentlessly, defiantly unique books I’ve read in a long time. It resists tidiness. It resists categorization. Little Bird is itself, as hard as it can, on purpose.
Little Bird will be published June 7, 2022.