When Brood by Jackie Polzin came my way, a friend of mine worried that I wouldn’t like it. “Not depressing enough for you,” she said. And, after reading it—and loving it—I agree that it’s not depressing, but the book is a beautiful, slow, sad pleasure, perfectly spare, evoking the core of the story by keeping the central issue largely off the page. The unnamed narrator tries to go about her life, mothering a brood of four chickens that die one by one over the course of a year while alone she manages a personal grief that no one—not her husband, her mother, or her best friend, acknowledges or speaks of.
The chickens are an interesting choice. They are entirely the opposite of her: they only see what’s a few feet in front of them, they neither remember the past nor think about the future, and daily they lay eggs which they willingly give up without protest. They are, as she describes them, “stuck in the present moment.”
Stuck. I love that she uses that word.
The narrator’s oblivious husband Percy, an agreeable, fun-loving man, is stuck pursuing irrelevant research—coming up with a theory about something—anything!—utterly trivial then scurrying about collecting data to support what he has already concluded. He then publishes what his wife calls “lists.” He’s more akin to a 6-month old black lab who never tires of chasing a ball than a husband with a single clue about the sorrow colonizing his wife.
When he is offered a job at a nearby university, they are deciding whether to move to a house closer to campus. She’s not sure she wants to move. This interaction is emblematic of her husband’s attention span:
Percy and I made a list of the pros and cons of leaving our home here and moving west near the university…In the end an economist will publish his list and make the decision he wanted to make in the first place.
“What about regret?” I asked.
“Put it down,” Percy said.
“Cost of living?”
“I can’t think of anything else.”
“What do you want?” Percy asked.
I could not tell him what I want exactly. I want something that will not end in disappointment.
“I’m excited to spend my life with you,” he said. “No matter what happens.”
This kind of enthusiastic non sequitur is not just the way Percy talks, it’s the way he lives and it knots up every aspect of their marriage.
Early in their relationship, the narrator learns that he had told his previous girlfriend he didn’t want to have children. She wants children, but can’t trust him to know what he wants, let alone say it. This interaction illuminates what any conversation about anything meaningful likely went:
He had said he did not want to have a child with [his former girlfriend] because she had told him she did not want children. …His stance on children was to not want whatever his girlfriend did not want or rather, to not want what she said she did not want, even if they were both wrong about it. I did not want to live with a man who could not think for himself, therefore he did not want me to live with him.
I stayed up late into the night rearranging every cupboard in the kitchen. The next morning Percy took the sugar from it’s new spot on the shelf and noted the perfect alignment without a word.
“I want children,” I said.
“Let’s have children.”
She’s the one with a foothold in reality. While she pays attention to the details of their life together, her husband pays attention to ludicrous data, publishes it, and gets paid as if he’s paying attention to something that matters. For example, she knows that the real estate market where they live will leave them losing money on their house, a house they have not spent the time or money to take care of. This situation is lost on Percy, but his wife knows every detail.
A house falls apart…I have charted the growth of a crack in the kitchen ceiling for the six years I have lived in this house, first mistaking it for a cobweb when it measured not half the length of the duster in my hand…Now the whole of it measures the length of a broom handle. Percy does not believe me, though my slapdash measurements suit his style. Percy believes only what he hopes to be true. He predicts the next generation will return to their roots, via chickens, among other things, though he has amassed no evidence in support of this. He cites instead all evidence to the contrary as proof of a breaking point, fixed in the future.
Although her resentment toward her husband continues to build, she can never find the moment to “win,” his entrenchment in Lala Land so complete:
Percy spent the morning hours on the back landing, sitting vigil with his notebook. He did not speak a word about his purpose, which I took to be secretive. I might not have noticed Percy’s silence, except that I had been waiting for him to say the wrong thing. Anything so that I might blame him for saying it.
It made me wonder whether her marriage wasn’t headed for a breaking point fixed in the not-too-distant future.
She is so undone that she feels confident about nothing, daily trying to find emotional solid ground, putting all her energy into caring for her chickens. But she finds no traction. At one point she confesses this to herself:
I never feel smaller than when I am filled with doubt, such a small, small feeling, it’s a marvel it can fill anything at all. Filled with doubt I shrink until I can hardly move, can do nothing but wait and see what happens.
What happens is nothing, except that despite buying her chickens the right food, scraping the ice off their water tank, and fighting rodents, still, one by one, they die, as if rubbing her face in her more painful grief, which she bears alone.
She can only grieve privately because everyone around her is complicit in deeming it unworthy, simply her own personal failure. She and Percy are invited to the home of her best friend, who the narrator knows is pregnant and not disclosing it to her. This is a house that she has cleaned various times over the years.
I am familiar with every inch of the Fibonacci House because I have cleaned it top to bottom on both occasions. The first marked my return to cleaning after many years away from it. I had stopped cleaning houses to become a mother, but then what? It turns out the world accepts failure only insofar as you keep trying.
Brood is a complicated, baldly honest story, the triple entendre of the simple title mirroring the depth of the tale. I suppose not much happens in Brood. Or maybe everything does. To me, the book felt brazenly true.
And, to be clear, it’s not a story about chickens.
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About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >