Review of Lauren Groff’s ‘Delicate Edible Birds’ by E.H.P.

I am proud to present the first Guest Review on Botendaddy from Julian.

A literary game: look at the last word of a book and see what it says about the rest of the work.  The last word of Lauren Groff’s story “Delicate, Edible Birds,” and of the collection it names, is safety.  In every story in this book, with the exception of the comic “Sir Fleeting,” a character is threatened with sexual abuse, death, or both.  In the title story, set during the Nazi invasion of France, a peasant farmer captures a group of war correspondents, threatening them with starvation or worse unless the one woman among them has sex with him.  In “Lucky Chow Fun,” the heroine’s sister disappears from their house: meanwhile, unnoticed by them or by other people in their village, several Chinese girls have been forced into prostitution, and two have died. 

 Even the sparest narrative here is built with rich description.  Here is a passage from “Sir Fleeting,” one of the lesser stories in the collection:

. . . The butterflies seethed over the streets, turned buildings into shuddering things, turned the most stoic of people into sleepwalkers, marveling at the delicate dreams at their feet.  [. . . ] Lulu tried to set up her easel before birds fluttered down and plucked off every simmering beast.  We left her there, and [. . . ] walked around the city for hours until, with another gust of wind, the butterflies rose as one and vanished.  On the ground wings lay broken, trampled, and in the trees sparrows sat puffed, eyes closed, sated almost to bursting.  (202)

The gorgeous details in these stories can be contrasted with the spare narrative of the late Grace Paley in her collection Enormous Changes At The Last Minute.

The stories are also ornamented by allusions to history, science, and literature.  What may seem like one tale suddenly becomes another.  “L. DeBard and Aliette” is about a poet in 1918 whose lover’s father forcibly castrates him.  This gains another level of meaning with comparison with a celebrated 12th century love affair.  Sometimes the unspoken adds an ominous tone to the story.  A few pages into the story “Majorette,” I read about a tiny baby who is born to parents who had a shotgun marriage and smoke and get drunk, into a house with worn-out ceiling tiles that snow asbestos, and I thought, Oh, no, and I dreaded what was going to happen next.  But I kept reading. The style, as with the other stories here, was compulsively readable. And the ending wasn’t as dark as I had feared.

The book is a major work of fiction.  Some people would call it a great work.  But I think Ms. Groff wouldn’t play King of the Hill.  The story “Delicate, Edible Birds,” for example, may be offering a parallel between the dilemma of its heroine and the Fall of France.  But it does not press it, as other authors might.  It emphasizes the uncertainty of listening to a family saying things half heard in a language one doesn’t know, and the dark beauty of the land.

Julian EHP, is a published poet with a Master’s Degree in English. She is the Grandaughter of a British Naval Captain who commanded a ship at Gallipoli, and the daughter of a man who served in the OSS in the Pacific in World War II and later taught at Harvard. Her mother, an accomplished painter and a Canadian, served in the US Foreign Service in World War II and she spent time in Morrocco and Bosnia.

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