Friday Reads: Poor Deer by Claire Oshetsky

Perhaps what is most important is not the truth of our lives, but the stories we tell.  

Or, as Poor Deer might argue, that’s a pretty saying that liars might repeat in an attempt to absolve themselves of guilt; nothing is more important than the truth.

Poor Deer is a quick-read of a novel. It is the confession and story of Margaret Murphy, who experienced an unthinkable tragedy when she was four years old. It is a strange literary punch of a novel, pirouetting on the incredible mutability and haze of a young child’s memory.  

I won’t spoil the central event of Poor Deer; what really happened the day of the schoolyard flood in that small mill-town is not definitively admitted until the final pages of the novel. But it is a tragedy regardless of what happened, and the confusing swirl of emotions and accusations, memory and blame, sweeps poor little Margaret away and drowns her life in guilt.

There is a fascinatingly light-touch to the story; Oshetsky relies on an older Margaret’s narration of the story – flipping back between third and first person perspective — and in doing so avoids the common, belief-breaking pitfall of “a child would not think or speak like that.” The language and tone of the novel itself is childlike and ephemeral, straightforward and naïve, poetic and blunt, and it softens the blow of what is a very depressing story. Don’t get me wrong: it still is a depressing story, in which awful things happen. It is depressing in the way that classic fairytales are depressing, and I think that was Oshetsky’s intent. But it is not entirely depressing, nor is it unrealistic or cruel. Oshetsky does not batter Margaret beyond the possibility of recovery, or beyond redemption.  

Margaret, who is now a young woman on the eve of another tragedy, is an unreliable narrator kept in check by the titular “Poor Deer” — an apparition who has been following Margaret since her childhood, who will not be dismissed until Margaret faces the truth. There are delightful and heartbreaking passages in which Poor Deer commands, “Again, again,” and Margaret starts again and tells her story honestly. “Is she real?” Margaret asks as she writes her confession under the weepy, vengeful gaze of the deer. “Does is matter? She is part of who I am.” 

Oshetsky, Claire. Poor Deer: A Novel. Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2024.

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