Marie-Helene Bertino’s ‘Parakeet’ forges clarity through chaos

Photo of 'Parakeet' by Marie Helene-Bertino
Farrar Straus & Giroux/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

The Bride’s wedding is just around the corner when her dead grandmother visits in the form of a bird. During this surreal, bizarre encounter, the Bride is instructed to find her long-estranged brother. And so begins a personal, taxing journey one that brings her to much more than just her sibling. 

This is the storyline of Marie-Helene Bertino’s sophomore novel “Parakeet,” released June 2. At first, the plot may seem like nothing more than a disoriented wandering of confusion and cringe. But Bertino has crafted an acutely purposeful path. The story is told from the perspective of the Bride, who gradually makes sense of her inner tumult. Part mystery and part psychological fiction, this work bends reality to capture something thoroughly real.

The book’s pacing is particularly admirable. Bertino orchestrates suspense all the way through as the Bride bounces around New York City; fragmented references to the Bride’s past drop seeds of intrigue for readers. Where is her brother? Will she get married by the end of the week? Why was she hospitalized several years prior? 

The Bride attains wonderful clarity, but only after brutal chaos. The story is a series of events that each display some form of confrontation, coaxing fundamental revelations. Readers quickly learn that the narrator is painfully self-aware. She is suffocated by social conventions and past traumas, nervous breakdowns driving the story forward. 

Entrapment is an especially present trope; Bertino skillfully employs numerous motifs to convey this theme in all its complexity. By lending the trope so much dynamism, the author optimizes the story’s impact on the reader, enabling comprehension and connection.

The antechamber motif, for one, takes on an increasingly relevant significance. A small room leading into a larger one it is the setting of the very first scene. The antechamber realizes her precarious state; it embodies an interim feeling of uncertainty, which the Bride battles tirelessly inside herself. 

There is also the elevator, first introduced when the Bride gets stuck in one at a hotel. The elevator walls are “composed of mirror” and she is “forced” to watch herself wait, adding a dimension of helplessness to what both she and the reader feel. 

Another central motif, of course, is the parakeet. Bertino meticulously writes of the bird, but she also inspects the cage. And if there’s anything this book explores, it’s the underlying and mystifying questions: What does it mean to be stuck? What does it mean to be set free? Such deep-seated frustration and peace are challenging to articulate, but the “million tiny birds” that fly off the Bride’s chest, for example, successfully convey a soaring liberation. 

“Parakeet” is delightfully complicated and endlessly layered. Bertino employs clever analogies that initially perplex readers, but with time, they inform of something greater. For one, there is the presence of theater with her brother’s play; she attends a performance, able to quite literally take a look at herself from the outside in. This bird’s-eye view more largely symbolizes and helps make clear how the Bride needs to take a hard, honest look at her life in order to attain any self-growth. 

Bertino’s mastery of storytelling and figurative language tactfully achieves a poignant tale of self-realization. As the novel reaches its end, the Bride at last experiences inner harmony. She reflects on what has brought her to this point, thinking how “one shift leads to another as you make room for yourself.”

Throughout the book, readers are aware of the Bride’s inner peace — or more often, lack thereof. “Parakeet” touches on the near-insolvable crises tangled within the enigma that is the human condition. More subtly, it paints simplicity and resolution as it would only make sense: One needs space to simply be. 

Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected]. Tweet her at @kathryynkemp.