Review by Frank Plowright
Daphne’s been going through a grim time, not least divorce proceedings in which her former husband was granted custody of their son. A job working for a woman who writes self-help and positive reinforcement books seems a step back up, and when her boss offers a month’s wages for looking after her 42 extremely valuable parrots for two weeks, Daphne jumps at the chance.
Deb Olin Unferth’s fiction has been well received, and over the course of I, Parrot she adopts Daphne’s view to present the catalogue of injustices and subsequent resentments forming her prime motivation. These are nicely contrasted with the hollow soundbites that have earned her employer a fortune, scattered throughout the book suggesting Unferth is exorcising some old ghosts.
It’s a great shame that artist Elizabeth Haidle either chose to work in black, white and shades of grey, or had the restriction imposed on her, as the selection of parrots providing the background throughout cry out for colour. Even if the lack of it is supposed to reflect Daphne’s mood, prioritising that is still a poor choice. Otherwise Haidle has a nice two-dimensional illustrative style making good use of diagrammatic shapes, and her pages sell the mystic realism well.
What’s predictable is that Daphne finds looking after the parrots a far less pleasant experience than she anticipated, but not for the reasons we might have thought. There are no sitcom scenes of Daphne chasing escaped parrots, but every day her life becomes a little worse, not helped by the strange behaviour of the ever-present and surreal house painters, all called Lee Anthony, and driving a wedge between her and her boyfriend. Unferth’s characterisation is well conceived. We can all sympathise with Daphne as hard done-by and root for her to overcome her current circumstances, as they’re cleverly plotted to reduce the chances of just that. Everything works toward a neat ending in which Daphne figures out she might not be able to change her life immediately, but she can do what’s right, the title making the connection for us.
I, Parrot is life-affirming in the best sense, Daphne snatching a little victory from a world grinding her down, with the consequences a matter for another day.