‘The house of fiction has many rooms,’ Sigrid Nunez said recently. The books she herself creates, with their blend of memoir, essays, loose plots and myriad stories, have come to seem increasingly spacious places. Like The Friend (2018) and What Are You Going Through (2020), her new novel turns on someone asking the narrator for a favour. This time it is not to adopt a dog or to accompany a dying friend on her final journey (as was the case in the last two novels of what Nunez now sees as a trilogy), but to take care of an abandoned parrot in a luxurious condo near Madison Square Park in New York. The ‘capricious’ parrot is named Eureka and its heavily pregnant owner, Iris, is with her in-laws in Palo Alto, unable to fly home because this is the spring of 2020. Everyone has suddenly been locked down.
Our unnamed narrator, a woman writer who lives alone, is reflective, discursive, somewhat melancholic: ‘I took in, early on, how much of life is shaped by sadness for what’s left behind.’ She’s glad of a chance to leave her own small flat and walk through the ‘stricken city’ to tend to Eureka every ‘drifting’ afternoon. Like everyone she knows, she’s lost the ability to concentrate in this ‘uncertain spring’. When she hears of a retired pulmonologist in Oregon wanting to come and help out with the health crisis in New York, she offers her own home to her and moves in with the bird she’s grown fond of, pleased that the student who was meant to be taking care of it – ‘an irresponsible jerk’ – has fled to his parents in Vermont. ‘For the alleviation of stress and anxiety: for comfort in mourning, sadness and loss: find someone who needs your help,’ she tells us. And so it seems she has.
Not much of a story so far, you might say, for motoring the first half of a novel. But this is Nunez, whose conversational voice works fine outside the bounds of narrative, and who begins this novel by mulling over the best way to start a book (and chooses a