Hello there and welcome to yet another late review which I feel apologising for will seem disingenuous as it’s a habit I seem to be falling into with increasing regularity. Regardless, I’m glad this book got half-voted, half-chosen by me for a review because I’ve been desperate to sing its praises for ages. What, am I meant to be impartial as a critic? Well I’ll try mystery voice in my head but I doubt it’ll be a success. So come mystery voice that I may need to go to my psychiatrist about, let’s go to the wonderful gumdrop filled world of the obligatory overview!
A hen who calls herself Sprout, is a caged egg laying hen who has laid her last and, on the instruction of the farmer’s wife, is about to be culled along with other battery hens. However, after being put into a wheelbarrow with other hens, Spout manages to survive an attack by a weasel due to a mallard duck. Although the duck tells Sprout to return to the Hole of Death, she claims that he being culled means she is free and wishes to enter the barn with the other animals.
This does not go well and, although allowed to stay a night, she is forced from the barn and is ostracised by the farmyard animals. This ostracism leads to a chain of events which, although Sprout is usually unknowingly participating in, leads Sprout down a life a caged hen should normally never lead.
Before I move onto the review proper I must admit that, while my review will probably come down heavily in this book’s favour, my judgement is not always so keen. Take for example the fact that I bought this book not because of a recommendation or even after reading the blurb which only made me feel justified in my book-buying senses.
No, my mind had been from looking at the delightful artwork on the cover and the quite absurdity of the title. Although it goes counter to the well-worn saying, but you really do have to judge a book by its cover. After all, no-one wants an ugly looking book.
But to return to the novel in question I must say that I admire Sun mi-Hwang’s use of language. While many authors thrive on the use of long and well worked sentences, filled completely with metaphors and imagery that could make one almost gasp for breathe at the end, as if we had completed some long trek up a mountain or swam across the Channel. Sun mi-Hwang goes the opposite direction. Her sentences end sharply. Almost abruptly. For example;
‘It was bright outside. The acacia tree on the edge of the yard was blooming with white flowers. Their sweet scent caught the breeze and wafted into the coop, filling Sprout’s heart. Sprout got up and shoved her head through the wire cage. Her bare, featherless neck rubbed raw.’
Hwang’s use of shorter sentences is both instances brilliant and irritating as, while I know some of these sentences can be strung together with commas and semi-colons to make a more flowing narrative like my English teachers taught me. Yet Hwang appears to flaunt these rules with harsher short sentences, bringing emphasis to every single thing that is happening.
The sentences ‘Her bare, featherless neck rubbed raw’ could easily be connected to the preceding sentence, but Hwang choose not to. Instead Hwang allows the reader to take in the action of Sprout’s neck being rubbed raw, imagining it in our heads as well as getting the discomfort of having that told to us in such a short sentence that we cannot hide from.
Yet while I say this book could be read by pretty much everybody, from energetic young children to armchair loving elderly people. And yet coupled with this universality is the subtle discussion of some pretty heavy themes. For example, when Sprout asks why she can’t live in the yard as she’s a chicken just like the free-range chickens are, the dog replies;
‘Ha! Silly chicken. What makes you think that? Yes, you’re both hens, but you’re different. How do you not know that? Just like I’m the gatekeeper and the rooster announces the morning, you’re supposed to lay eggs in a cage. Not in the yard! Those are the rules.’
‘But what if I don’t like the rules? What happens then?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’
This captures in such beautifully simplistic terms the concept of prejudice that can be interpreted in so many ways. The way Hwang captures the “not one of us” language can be used to reflect on so many forms of prejudices it’s simply delightful. Be it racism, fear of the “other” – e.g.: immigrants, people who rise from their class of birth, LGBT issues, etc., all can be derived from this, and many other passages which I daren’t spoil for you. Suffice to say, with such simple words comes the force of an earthbound comet.
Although I can’t go into all of the themes lest I spoil the novel for you entirely one theme I will note that Hwang makes abundantly and repetitively clear in The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is death. Death is always surrounding Spout, even from the very beginning of the novel. Even before the mention of being culled, we get the sense that Sprout is on the way out as, after having laid her soft, blood-flecked egg;
‘[She] couldn’t even stand upright today. No wonder – somehow she had managed to lay an egg without having eaten a thing. Sprout wondered how many eggs she had left inside her; she hoped this was the last one.’
Without saying it, you can feel the Sprout’s mortality ebbing away in these lines. The fact that she wishes this egg be her last is, at least for a egg laying hen, a death sentence. But death is not something that is shied away from, rather, it is laid bare for all to see. From the mass grave of chickens she escapes from after the weasel attack, to her possible death of being left in the open of the yard where the weasel could strike, death, usually personified by the weasel, is always present and never leaves.
It teaches us a good lesson about death as most modern cultures do not experience death in the ways we used to. It’s out of the way, behind blinds or sterilised so not to upset our sensibilities. Hwang lays it before us as raw as Sprout’s neck. We cannot escape death no matter how much, or how little, we think about it. Like the threat of the weasel, death is always there.
Yet this does not mean we do not strive against death, for through Sprout we see that we must fight against death with all we have and, while it will eventually come, we must live life rather than have a life that it the mere waiting for death.
The inside sleeve of my copy compares it to E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And the shocking thing is, they are right to compare it. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is one of those fables that come once a generation. With a protagonist we want to survive and thrive, ideas like death, sacrifice, individual and group identity, and, importantly, motherhood that educate us silently, as well as a plot that one can hardly not enjoy and perhaps shed a tear about, this book should, nay will, become compulsory reading.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed reading this review as much I have writing it. If want to keep updated on my writings then follow me here on WordPress, as well as Facebook and Twitter so you don’t miss anything. Next will be my last Febookuary review, The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. And again, thanks for reading!