One of the trickiest things to pull off in fiction is the time-bending narrative, where an omniscient narrator loops in and out of different lives over centuries, sometimes showing us in a single sentence glimpses of the past, present and future.
Gabriel García Márquez is a master of the form. Take the opening line of his opus One Hundred Years of Solitude, which hooks the reader from the off with its assault on time. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Deb Olin Unferth’s dazzling new novel, Barn 8, also plays fast and loose with time. An omnipresent narrator oversees the lives of many characters – and chickens – whose stories loop back on each other and jump thousands of years into the future.
At times, particularly in the latter half of the book, the structure, or lack thereof, leads to confusion. Readers may struggle to move from section to section. Scenes frequently start after the action has occurred and work backwards to explain. Snapshots of side characters become impenetrable as the cast count rises.
We spend so much time trying to figure out where we are in the story, it can, on occasion, be hard to care – a shame in an otherwise vibrant novel. The plot itself is thankfully more straightforward: a group of animal activists in the US midwest set about freeing a million chickens from dozens of battery barns over the course of one fraught night.
The story starts with teenager Janey, who has left her mother in New York to go to live in rural Iowa with a father she didn’t know existed. The relationship between father and daughter is detailed and heartfelt: “She felt comically female, even in her tomboy garb, like an invasion of femininity bleeding into this dead-fast male apartment.”
Janey is a wonderful creation, alive on the page, full of spiky dialogue with the adults who surround her. When an early twist sees her remain in Iowa, she is mentored by Cleveland, a friend of her mother's who works as an auditor in a hen farm. There are echoes of the novels of Anne Tyler in these early chapters, where everyday life unfolds in chance meetings, unfortunate events and tense family dynamics.
Olin Unferth ups the stakes and introduces a host of other activist characters as plans for mass chicken unrest grow ever more convoluted. A major theme is whether activism does more harm than good in its attempts to make a difference at all costs.
In her mind-bending world of Iowa hen farms, Olin Unferth turns on its head the old line that all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. The author captures the frenetic quality of 21st century activism, asking us to consider both activism and refusal to act. Throughout the novel, meaningful action is contrasted with those who pay lip service to the hens.
This is the author's sixth book, but her first publication in the UK and Ireland. Her accolades to date include a Guggenheim Fellowship, three Pushcart Prizes, and finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Award. Currently living in Texas, her work has appeared in Granta, Harper's, McSweeney's and the Paris Review.
The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts or Jenny Offill's Weather are recent novels that also consider the ecological problems of a capitalist society, though both use different tools. Whereas Offill seeks to bring clarity with her writing, Olin Unferth bamboozles the reader with the absurdities of modern life. On every page, she is there, asking us to look at how we live.
The banal horrors of the 21st century are highlighted and unpicked: “Think high-rises, gated communities, all the places that give you a twitch of existential dread. The Amazon shipping facilities, the dying superstores, the prisons and detention centres, the pig farms, all the boxes that hold products and people and animals, the Le Corbusian landscape one skirts over or through.”
Throughout Barn 8, the prose is intricate and vibrant, and the pace is relentless as the author pushes her story to its inventive end. Characters are brightly drawn, dialogue is snappy, and the topicality of the book, at a time when many are questioning the manufacturing processes behind animal food produce, makes it read like a comi-tragic manifesto of our age.
Olin Unferth leaves us with a lasting picture of the carnage. Inside “barn universe” are hundreds of thousands of hens whose voices have atrophied or never fully developed: “Completely enclosed in steel and concrete, seven tremendous aisles of cages soaring 25 feet high, eight tiers in two storeys. A system of chains bringing in the feed, a series of belts carrying out the excrement.”