You might be tempted to call eight-year-old Egg Murakami enchanting or winsome. Even plucky or spirited.
Each of these terms does reflect Egg in some sense. But such descriptions suggest something young-Oprah-heroine-esque about her.
Egg’s character is too fully rounded to simply select the glossy, desirable qualities. (Rounded or ovalled? Sorry.)
And this coming-of-age story has some dark elements, which would strain even the most spirited heroine.
Readers have to piece some of that together independently, because while Egg recognizes the different life-stages and struggles that family members inhabit, her observations are rooted in the ways in which these distinctions affect Egg, rather than the person’s broader reality.
But even at eight, Egg intuits some truths about older people, particularly her sister, with a startling clarity.
“Kathy is seventeen, as if she knows everything. She’d bust out of herself if she could, bust out and leave everyone behind.”
And Egg is coping with her grief in her own way, just as confined and restricted. “Albert will never be with them. He has been dead for three months, two weeks, and five days — such a long, long time. Now they are all broken apart and Mama’s lost and drifting and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never be able to put them back together again.”
Like Madeleine in Ann-Marie Macdonald’s The Way the Crow Flies and Jane Finlay-Young’s From Bruised Fell, Egg views the world in a fresh and invigorating way. Readers are invited into her imagination and quickly become immersed in her perspective.
“The stone ridge stretches out at the beginning of the flats; the jutting rocks bleached white by a relentless sun. Riding at the back of the creaking school bus, Egg imagines the backbone of some long-dead creature. Here be dragons. This is dinosaur country after all. Egg loves the sweep of the prairie fields, that receding tide of grasslands, sculpted outcrops, the mysterious sentinels of the stone erratics. The sky, ever changing and eternal, is a boundless blue. Another ocean, Egg thinks. She likes the words azure, aquamarine.”
There, Alberta, covered by a sky-ocean, with other beautiful ‘a’ words. For Egg loves words. Their power and the possibilities they reflect in stories.
“In an adventure tale, you can be a Hero or a Damsel Fair. But not both. Girls are never heroes. In an adventure story, someone is saved. The dragon is slain. The moral is that good triumphs over evil, just like in real life.”
Tamai Kobayashi’s prose style presents Egg’s voice in a perfectly calibrated collision of innocence and imagination. But perhaps the most memorable aspects of Prairie Ostrich are the bits of brightness that provoke a smile. There are moments in which humour eclipses some painful realities.
“Kathy says Bittercreek is so small you could spit from one end to the other and flat enough you could watch your dog run away for a week.”
Egg is an outsider, and she understands that Kathy feels a desire to run, as much as any dog, away from something as much as towards something else.
“They are the only Japanese-Canadian family on the prairie, except for the mushroom farm way out in Nanton. Lethbridge is so far away, it doesn’t even count, even if they do have the Japanese Garden.”
But at eight years old, Egg has to work with what’s right in front of her. She finds solace in relationships, with books and select creatures.
“School is books too, the best Dictionary of all and Evangeline Granger in the library. A once upon a time and a happily ever after.”
And she finds chaos, too.
“You make up a story to make sense of the world. But what if the world doesn’t make sense?”
Prairie Ostrich is a slim volume, but Egg swells beyond the page, and Tamai Kobayashi’s debut novel shakes its tailfeathers across the Canlit scene with poise and panache.