Barn 8

Deb Olin Unferth

And Other Stories, £9.99

Review by Nick Major

Gallus gallus domesticus. The domestic chicken. Only this morning, I was chasing a brace of them back into their field. As I darted this way and that – feeling a little headless actually – I caught myself muttering something derogatory about their intelligence.

After reading Deb Olin Unferth’s wild and pacey novel about the kidnapping of 900,000 battery hens, I should have known better. Hens are as intelligent as other animals. It’s surprising, considering everything humans have done to them: genetic interference, sensory deprivation, inbreeding, mutilation and mass incarceration. But remember, when you next hear the squawk, chitter, coo and cluck of a hen, it is not mindless babble; it’s nuanced conversation, much of it concerning food, shelter and survival.

It’s not a novel’s job to inform, but if it has a few well-constructed, enjoyable lessons like this and they serve the art itself, then it’s nothing to complain about. Thankfully, didacticism is not Unferth’s style. This is her sixth book. She’s honed her writing in a range of forms, from memoir, poetry and short story. Her dexterity shows.

She’s a playful and digressive writer with a keen psychological insight, but one which doesn’t overburden the reader with heavy interiority. She understands how our imaginations clash with reality, how we fumble through our days moving between who we are and who we could be.

Take Janey, one of Unferth’s main characters. She leaves her home at the age of 15 to find her birth father in Iowa after the death of her mother in a car accident.

Throughout this first part of the novel, we are given snippets of how her alternative self, the one who stayed at home, could have lived.

The real Janey – depressed and seemingly resigned to a life of quiet desperations – eventually, through her father, secures a job in “big ag”, as an auditor for Happy Green Family Farm, a battery hen factory. It is here she meets a face from the past, Cleveland.

One day, a hen called Bwwaauk – brilliantly anthropomorphised by Unferth – escapes Happy Green and is picked up by Cleveland. This precipitates a nigh time ritual. Cleveland begins smuggling chickens out of the farm and leaving them outside the local animal investigations office. Janey finds out about Cleveland’s hobby, and joins in.

From here the plot gathers pace, and before they know it the pair have concocted a plan to “remove” hundreds of thousands of the poor creatures with some inside help. Happy Green Family Farm’s owner has a sister, Annabelle. A militant type, she lives on a toxic waste site, and has a different understanding of hens to her kin: “the point is not to use them…is it so much to ask? Not for their eggs, not to eat, not to make a point.”

Annabelle recruits her ex-husband and three hundred animal investigations officers, an underground army of freaks and outsiders. Cleveland and Janey aren’t activists or firebrands. They are two women who come up with a plan to “free the birds” mostly, it seems, to free their own lives. This is one reason Barn 8 is so interesting and much more than a crazy plot. Unferth questions the motives of all and sundry and explores what moral acts mean in a world of compromised politics. “It is difficult to be honourable for more than a flash of time,” we are told. “Darker or more complex motives are always banging around under the surface.”

Barn 8 also contains complex depths: it is a novel about finding a home in the world and breaking free of the production line mentality of modern life, but also an exploration of the different fates that befall people – and chickens – when some life-altering opportunity comes along.