Genre : Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Initially Published : August 2014, Reprint: January 2015
Publisher : Twelfth Planet Press/Strange Horizons
With a busy next few weeks ahead of us, Sara and I decided to switch things up a bit for our next two blog posts! This Sunday and next Sunday, we’ll each be reviewing a short story recommended by the other. This week, I recommended that Sara read The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar, a beautiful and heartbreaking coming of age story that deals with identity, loss, magic, and, of course, owls.
I stumbled upon this story a year ago while listening to the Levar Burton Reads podcast at the gym – I immediately fell in love with the voice of this piece. In this story, El-Mohtar effortlessly weaves the magical into the mundane. I love how she makes the smallest things in life (like a little girl and an owl!) seem so very big and meaningful. I hope you enjoy, Sara!
The first thing I want to talk about for this story is its structure, which I found so cool and so fun to read. Each small section of the story is preceded by a fact about owls – their eye color, their personalities, how they look when they fly, etc. These are then followed by plot (obviously) and bits of information about the protagonist of the story – Anisa, effectively connecting her appearance, her personality, and her identity to various species of owls. I love how the random facts about owls give you clues to what you’re going to learn about Anisa, and how going back and re-reading the story makes you tie even more similarities between them!
We meet Anisa at the Scottish Owl Centre, where she is on a school field trip and finds herself having to correct her teacher’s pronunciation of her name while also noting how the teachers don’t try to herd her together with the other children. The owl fact preceding this section is about the coloring of owl’s eyes, and how this corresponds to what time of day they hunt (black-eyed owls hunt at night). Anisa reflects on how she no longer hates that her eyes are black, even though she used to wish that her eyes were a lighter color like her father’s, which “people were always startled to see in a brown face.”
“But she can’t remember—though she often tries—whether she felt, for the first time, the awful electric prickle of the power in her chest, flooding out to her palms.”
The story continues to weave facts and plot together, revealing that Anisa grew up in Lebanon and lived there when Israel bombed the country. Her re-location to the UK resulted in a lot of othering by her new classmates, and in an anger and a sense of loss building inside of Anisa that she believes is a dangerous power that makes bad things happen when she thinks of them. This is another part of the story that I absolutely loved – seeing how this “power” manifested itself in Anisa, how it reached a breaking point, and how it slowly transformed into something else entirely by the end of the story.
Anisa’s anger and her guilt at that anger ebbs away the more time she spends at the owl centre. She meets a woman named Izzy who works there and handles one of the owls, Blodeuwedd. Izzy tells Anisa the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers who turned into an owl, and this story is what pushes Anisa into learning more about Welsh mythology and magic – and as a result, more about herself. This combined with the friendship that starts to build with Izzy helps Anisa begin to blossom into something new.
There is so much I want to talk about with this story, so much I want to dissect, but I feel like talking about it more than I have will spoil the magic that it contains (and there is so much that is magical about this story!). El-Mohtar uses language in The Truth About Owls to create this magic, defining what words mean and what certain feelings are called and then tying them into the story and the characters in a way that is seemingly simple, but also extremely beautiful. For example, Anisa sometimes feels like a collection of random bits and things thrown together, and Izzy tells her that feeling can be described as a florilegium – a gathering of flowers. I can’t even begin to say how much I love how El-Mohtar takes Anisa’s doubts and fears and gives them a name, like a gathering of flowers, showing that having doubts and fears doesn’t have to be an ugly thing that you should hide.
The Truth About Owls is beautifully written, and I feel like I catch new details each time I go through it. The descriptions and the way Anisa’s changes and grows makes me want to re-read this story over and over (I’m already on my fourth reading of it!!!). So, thanks for recommending it, Emory! It has definitely taken its place on my list of favorite short stories! If you all are interested in reading it after hearing my review, it is available to read for free on Strange Horizons: http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-truth-about-owls/
9 Random Owl Facts out of 10