It’s 1972 in Cape Cod. Naomi Orenstein (known as Chirp, because her hobby is bird-watching) is aged 11. She lives with her father, mother and older sister Rachel. Her mother is a dancer. Chirp is very close to her mother, slightly less so to her psychologist father. The family life is disrupted when mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the end of course of a dancing career. The illness brings on a nervous collapse and the mother must be moved to an institution her daughters call ‘the nuthouse’.
The remainder of Ehrlich’s novel charts the efforts of the family to cope with this devastating situation and the ways in which relationships are formed and fragment.
Chirp has a rare moment of elation at school when she earns admiration and applause from her teacher and her classmates by imitating the action of a bird she has observed. And at that moment, out of the blue, comes a life-changing event.
Ehrlich has a marked ability to construct a narrative that rings true, in part the result of her lead character’s authenticity, the language and idiom of the 1970s being convincingly captured. A child of eleven may have enough knowledge of the world to grasp events around her, but not enough to manage them effectively. Ehrlich gives Chirp exactly this measure of worldly knowledge. Above all Ehrlich deals with the issues of physical and mental illness in a supremely balanced way. She neither dramatises nor flinches.