Book Review: Brood

Brood, by Jackie Polzin, is a story that blends the joys and challenges of hen keeping with the evolving experiences of a middle aged woman living in Minnesota, USA. It is a bittersweet tale but never cloying in its depiction of life and loss. The writing is honest and to the point, a clear eyed take on the curveballs to be dealt with as time goes by. A hen keeper myself, I found the observations of the feathered ladies delightful. The author has captured the essence of the relationship formed when a small number of birds are kept, ostensibly for eggs, not quite pets but still individually cared for.

The nameless narrator is married to Percy, an academic. They have kept four hens in their back garden for the past four years. When the tale opens, Percy has applied for a job at a prestigious university in Los Angeles. If he is offered the position, the hens will have to be rehomed.

Through the bitter cold of winter, into spring and then the heat of summer, the challenge is to keep the hens alive.

“Life is the ongoing effort to live. Some people make it look easy.”

“The chickens don’t care about my gestures toward life in a traditional sense, but most of the time they don’t die, which is the most primitive form of gratitude.”

As well as caring for her home and hens, the narrator works as a cleaner. Her friend, Helen, is a real estate agent and needs properties polished to a shine to create the best impression for potential buyers. The narrator finds this work soothing, despite the memories it evokes of a terrible event suffered while doing the job several years ago. In certain important aspects, her life has not gone in the direction she desired and envisaged.

Chapters are kept short and direct offering snapshots of the narrator’s day to day life and her thoughts on issues she is faced with. The reader is offered glimpses of friends, neighbours, the narrator’s mother, and Percy. Readers will also get to know the personalities of the four hens.

“While there is no agreement on the subject of chickens and words, there is agreement that chickens speak only of the here and now. A chicken does not speak of the day before. A chicken does not speak of tomorrow. A chicken speaks of this moment. I see this. I feel this. This is all there is.”

It would be easy to seek out metaphors from the behaviour of the hens in this story but I preferred to read it as a straightforward depiction of the woman’s life and its constraints. She is practical and rarely prone to emotional outbursts. She feels deeply but is accepting of what she cannot change.

There is a recollection in the book that particularly resonated. The narrator views a painting in an art gallery that she had seen several years previously but reacted to quite differently then. It offered a reminder that the lens through which we look at the world will always be coloured by ongoing personal experience, that little of what we do or say can ever be entirely objective.

Although lightly told there is a depth of feeling in the quirky yet accomplished writing that held my attention and made me care. The shadow of sadness in the narrator’s life is just one facet of the many practicalities she must deal with. The strength and calm acceptance she digs down for, to live in the moment as her hens do, is a quality I can admire.

An enjoyable read albeit one tinged by loss and the lasting impact of grief. The hens add heart and humour, as they do in real life.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.

Book Review: Brood


Brood, by Chase Novak, is a powerful, chilling horror story which explores the emotive subject of fertility and what could go wrong if desperate, would be parents used wealth to buy experimental treatments abroad. If all that were wanted was a baby then these treatments would be considered a success. However, the side effects prove terrifying as the new parents discover the cost of their induced parenthood, and it is not just they who are affected. As the children grow and the condition of their parents deteriorates it becomes clear that what they have become is deadly and cannot be controlled.

As well as the questions this book raises about how far infertile couples will go in order to conceive, there is a sub plot that explores man’s desire to copulate when natural libido fails. There is a lucrative market in drugs that claim to improve sex life with little regard for the side effects these can have. The mutant children play a crucial role in this trade which puts them in danger as pharmaceutical companies seek them out, eager to discover their secrets in order to replicate it in a lab.

The story explores society’s need for outward conformity. Children are routinely drugged if their behaviour is deemed unacceptable. The pharmaceutical companies push drugs that offer a normality dictated by a culture that demands ideals. Children should do as they are told and outperform their peers. Adults view a sex life as a right.

These story-lines ebb and flow around the individual tales of the brood, a group of feral children who have escaped the horrors of their parents but now find themselves developing similar appetites. These children recognise that they will never find a place within approved society and seek to create a place for themselves.

Alongside there is one woman, Cynthia, who is trying to cure two of the children with love. She watched as her sister took the fertility treatments which ultimately drove her to suicide, saw first hand the effects the drugs had on behaviour. Now Cynthia is determined to become a mother to the resulting children, a task that she longed for yet which tests her to her limits and endangers her life.

The book is stylishly written. Although gruesome in places the detail is needed to fully appreciate both the pathos of the mutant offspring and the world where the wealthy can buy drugs which override nature in a way that has nothing to do with curing illness. The undercurrents are about, money, power, control and self entitlement.

The author has created a compelling tale that asks deep questions yet is written with the lightest of touches. It may be read more simply as a story of self engrossed adults and wild children, or it may be taken as a parable for a world we are not so far away from.

These are emotive subjects presented in a macabre light. This is one of the best horror stories I have read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mulholland Books.