Marriages break up, I wanted to shout. Fathers can abandon their children, children can be left alone. There is nothing in the vow that is sacred. There is no security – we are each of us alone. – from Looking After Pigeon, page 180 –
Pigeon is five years old – the youngest of three children – when her beloved father abandons them to the care of their eccentric and cold mother, Joan. Joan has named all her children after birds – Dove, Robin and Pigeon.
Still I believe, as I am sure our mother did, that the names we are given as children have much to do with the people we later become. Perhaps we do not really fly. It is done these days only safely aboard commercial airlines, and none of us have migrated far from home. Yet I am certain something of what our mother tried to impart in us at our birth is with us still, and always will be. – from Looking After Pigeon, page 11 –
After Pigeon’s father leaves, Joan packs up her children…with very few of their belongings…and moves to her brother’s home on the New Jersey shore. It is the beginning of summer and a new life for all of them. Each character will deal with their losses and fears differently. Joan will join a cult-like church and find a new lover; Dove (the eldest child) will look for acceptance in the arms of older men; Robin (the eldest boy) will find hope in reading the future in tarot cards; and young Pigeon will look for her father in the kindness of her Uncle Edward, and in the generosity of her mother’s lover Cary. Pigeon longs for an intact family. She misses the love of her father…and she hopes that he will one day return to her. Her habit of constructing paper families from the pictures of catalogs is heartbreaking.
I studied their faces carefully for my game; you could not just choose a person willy-nilly without consideration for their looks and disposition. For I was creating families and I did not take the responsibility lightly. All sons and daughters needed to look like their parents. They required friends of nearly the same age. Grandparents had to be older, of course, though still sprightly, attractive. And they all needed to share similar coloring and size. I had ten families already, had made clothes for them out of construction paper, and even provided them with pets – dogs and cats clipped from a pet supply firm. And although they were only made of the shiny catalogue paper, their lives were as intricate and involved as any real family’s ever were. – from Looking After Pigeon, page 102 –
Looking After Pigeon is narrated by an adult Pigeon who is looking back on that fateful summer when all that she had known and trusted disappeared. She wishes to uncover the truths of her upbringing, to gain an understanding of what happened so that she can move forward in her life and perhaps develop the trust she needs to connect with her significant other.
Maud Carol Markson’s latest novel is a look beneath the surface of a broken family through the eyes of the youngest daughter. Written in honest, simple prose…the book examines the impact of our earliest experiences on the development of our self-esteem, trust and world view. It also looks at our deepest fear – that of being abandoned and left to take care of ourselves. Who among us does not wish to be protected, cared for, and loved unconditionally? For Pigeon, security is wrenched from her suddenly and without explanation. She is often left to her own devices, to wander through the streets or along the beach alone. The adults in Pigeon’s life are mostly absent – either physically or emotionally – and are unreliable. Even Uncle Edward, who obviously loves and cares about Pigeon, is not always available to her.
Looking After Pigeon is a difficult story to read. It is not a terribly positive look at marriage, parenting or the family. And yet it is a thoughtful and intriguing book which continued to spin around in my head after I finished it. Despite its slim size (less than 200 pages), this is a deep book which I read slowly. I grew to care about Pigeon and empathize with what was lacking in her life. I found myself feeling anger toward the adults in her life who had relinquished their responsibilities and left her feeling vulnerable and lonely. Sadly, stories like this are found not only in fiction. Children often find themselves, in real life, alone or abandoned and without adults who make them feel safe. I think it takes courage for an author to tackle subjects like these in fiction. Too often readers want “feel good” novels and shy away from books like Looking After Pigeon.
Markson is a talented writer and Looking After Pigeon is an engrossing literary novel. Despite its serious subject matter, the book ends with a glimmer of hope for Pigeon and leaves the reader with a positive message – that despite flaws in our childhoods, we can choose to move forward and find joy as adults.
Readers who appreciate well-written literary fiction will want to read this book.