How can you not be captivated by a book whose fourth sentence reads, “Maybe it all would have happened differently if the bird on the front lawn hadn’t given me my idea about my grandfather’s balls”?
Fleur Robins is an awkward child at best, with her obsession with “the void”, religion (or, more precisely, spirituality), and her place in a world where mothers withdraw and fathers abhor their offspring. Between her alcoholic mother, her emotionally and physically absentee father who crusades to save unborn babies from “devil abortionists” yet seems to dislike Fleur and other children, and a string of household helpers that include a gas-riddled ex-nun named Sister Flatulencia who are better parents to Fleur than her biological set, it seems no wonder Fleur has a penchant for pinching herself and flapping her arms when she’s stressed. The only person Fleur feels truly connected to is her grandfather, with whom she spends hours watching birds from the window of his room. But when she finds a baby bird abandoned in her father’s garden and it dies in her care, Fleur sets events in motion that take her to the outer boundaries of what is and is not thought possible.
Is Fleur simply odd, autistic, or a savant genius? When her paid companion and tutor, Adam, discovers Fleur has a mind for science, he introduces her to Stanley H. Fiske, a physics professor at Cal Tech, and Fleur goes from feeling odd and out of place to feeling odd and out of place, but with companions.
This is a coming of age story like none you’ve ever read before. Heath’s prose is decidedly spiritual, as when Fleur observes, “It occurred to me, then, that when people cover the earth with concrete, they close off its secret workings, making everyone so vulnerable to the void that they have to keep moving quickly.” It took me decades to understand that concept, yet here was Fleur, 13 years old, and already attuned to this basic law of Nature.
Heath’s prose is also poetic. When Fleur says goodbye to a longtime friend, she makes this observation: “I saw our sadness leaking out of us in the form of bubbles floating skywards and watched them pop in a variety of interesting patterns.” I would love to see what sort of poem the author could make from that one line. I would like to see her paint it.
This book made me laugh, especially whenever Sister Flatulencia came into a scene, trailing the odor and noise of farts behind her. It made me cry, never more than when Fleur awkwardly has his first encounter with a boy and begins to learn the heartbreak, hopefulness, and tragedies of teenaged infatuation.
Mostly, this book made me want to savor each page like I was eating a delicate peach, one so delicious I never wanted to finish it. It made me want to sit in my garden and see if I could actually observe a rosebud unfurl, something Fleur mentions she has never observed, though not for lack of wanting to.
As for Fleur’s idea about her grandfather’s balls—well, you’ll have to read that one for yourself. It is one of the most poignant scenes I’ve ever read in a book, in a book so unforgettable it will be difficult to top.
Five stars to Sharon Heath for her stunning debut novel.