by Ioannis Argiris
The opening of Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino starts off as a wild dream state for Luna, a young bride-to-be. Her dead grandmother manifests as a parakeet in a hallucinogenic vision and urges Luna to reconcile with her brother before her wedding day. We meet Luna at a dilapidated hotel on Long Island, trying on her wedding dress, as her grandmother inquires about family and traditions. But when Luna brushes off her grandmother’s request that she make amends with her brother, her grandmother—the parakeet—defacates on the wedding dress, forcing Luna to plunge into an unusual journey. The novel delivers an honest connection to family, through the lens of the theater, that makes for a great read.
Parakeet is Marie-Helene Bertino’s third novel and it dives into a bride’s search for identity. Luna is anxious—as one might be leading up to such an event—but also conflicted, vulnerable, and dismissive both to herself and others. She’s getting married to feel something new inside, but what ensues is a chaotic, strange, sometimes dark exploration into the self. Luna, referred to as “the Bride” throughout the novel, must ultimately acknowledge her traumatic past life to discover growth. With her grandmother’s manifestation as a parakeet, Luna’s stable life rattles with unresolved questions from her past. Why must she reconcile with her brother? Can she really accept her mother’s control? Why has her grandmother appeared the week of her wedding, and as a parakeet, no less?
Acceptance and acknowledgment of one’s identity through maternal legacy strongly surfaces as the core of the novel. From her grandmother’s appearance, to a strained relationship with her mother, to whether or not Luna wants to become a mother, she must look back in order to move forward. Her grandmother questions Luna’s independence and freedom. “Those of us with able bodies have a responsibility to use them as much as we can. Given another chance, you wouldn’t believe how I’d use it. Threesomes. Foursomes. Moresomes. Smoking is a joy of life. Good lord, why did I ever give it up? My teachers called me disruptive.” This contradicts the conservative and traditional approach to life her mother instilled in her. Luna must accept not only that her formative years were shaped by these women, but that they continue to guide her today .
Identity through trauma appears in various forms throughout the novel. At one point, we meet “other mother,” a future vision of Luna. “I become aware of a third sentience inside me, blinking behind my mother and me—what I can only call ‘other.’” This out of body moment is raw and experimental. It enables Luna, the Bride, to really get at some core questions about her life. It is a catalyst that forces Luna back to what she must accomplish—who is she? And in order to determine that, she must meet with her brother prior to her wedding day.
The bizarre expedition includes various moments that exude an offbeat tone. Managing the various wedding vendors and tying up loose ends at work enables Luna to wander from the inevitable wedding day. For example, she brushes off the florist multiple times and says she’s not getting married. And when she must close out her last case as a case worker for a law firm, she realizes how her client’s brain injury and subsequent memory loss has stifled his life. This finally nudges Luna to confront her own trauma by visiting her brother’s play, one that is based on her life. Seeing the various versions of herself acted out on stage is traumatizing for Luna. She becomes entranced by the beautiful feathered costumes that dive into her emotional wounds, which allows her to observe her flaws and growth along with the audience.
The concept of performance is an integral part of the novel—from her brother’s play to the wedding day itself. Luna must create a façade with a dress, makeup, and an attitude that emanates joy. The stage is the renovated inn that contains traps for her to confront and spaces for her to reflect in. She is a character in a play that then gets tested within a cage made up of her family, friends, and future self. Luna’s path to realization is both wonderful and dissociative. Bertino weaves the concept of identity through trauma into a raw and emotional prose that delivers.
In addition to Parakeet, Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas and the story collection Safe as Houses. Her fourth book, the novel Beautyland, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Spring 2022.
Ioannis Argiris is based in Oakland, California, and is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing through the Low Residency program at UC Riverside. He is currently working on his first novel and also his first graphic novel. You can find him online on both Twitter and Instagram.