Get to the Point Book Reviews: Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth

Book Review Rules

The book may (or may not) work for me personally but that’s not to say it didn’t do wonders for (or fail) someone else.


Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth

Would I recommend?

Favorite Quotes

“She had authored her life. There was a better life than the one she lost and it was the one where she chooses.”

“The hen, protector of creation. Her egg, a symbol of life, resurrection. Inevitable yet fragile.”

“We always think it’s over for us—and it is over—then it starts again. Reincarnation in this lifetime.”

“The universe—the one full of darkness and silence and mud—thrived on coincidence and free will, error.”

The Goods

There is an idea here, one worth exploring, a story told from the point of view of a chicken. And it is the veiled promise of that idea that kept me going. Sounds weird, I know, but for that reason Barn 8 would have been an incredibly unique story. The audience is offered occasional perspective-scraps from a chicken named, Bwwaauk. Those scraps are interesting but not sustaining.

The Not So Good

My experience in reading Barn 8 is so largely fragmented that I’m going to come across as trashing the novel, and I’m not into that. I am going to summarize my points. This is 100% my experience. Again, there is an idea to Barn 8 that kept me reading, yet I would not recommend this novel.

I’m a huge fan of multiple characters and their respective perspectives, and there are multiple characters in Barn 8, however, their presentation is brief, fragmented. Do not expect to get attached to any one character. I did not experience a depth of character flavor anywhere. What I experienced is something akin to: this is a new character, this is their demographic, this is their thought, this is their actionable contribution to the story, and now we move on to the next character. To say there is a distance between you, the reader, and the characters is an understatement. (Ironically, Cleveland is the best character Barn 8 has to offer as this sort of flat-faced presentation best suits her character.)

There is no character lead in Barn 8. The lacking lead is confusing as the novel starts out with, Janey. Janey has a strong backstory, the opening of the novel is invested with her personal story (having nothing to do with animal rights, chickens, or animal-related anything) and just when you get a feel for her as the lead, the author completely withdraws from the character and starts shuffling. In a very real sense, Barn 8 reads like it’s set to shuffle. Then you, the reader, are led to believe that the story might be co-led by, Cleveland, who is clearly the best written character of the book. But no. Just when you wrap your head around Cleveland, perspective shifts, again.

If Barn 8 was presented solely from Cleveland’s point of view, I might have better enjoyed the work. In an attempt to diversify the story, I believe the characters became watered down in order to offer more than one perspective, thus the constant shifting. Personally, I dislike a novel where there isn’t a least one clear lead protagonist whose point of view is solid, whose perspective I can rely on to move the novel forward.

In March, I made a Book of the Month recommendation for novel, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. An excellent example of multiple character investment and multiple character perspective. Each character is unique and engaging. With every character, you could trust their perspective to take lead of the story as you became acquainted with their mindsets and differing points of view. For me, I took longer than I needed to finish reading Barn 8 as every time I picked the book up, I had no strong feeling for any of the characters. I had no real reason to care about their perspectives, their motivations, or how they were moving the story forward. If a story is fragmented so too is the pacing, another reason I took so long to finish the book.

Additionally, I did not care for the Lost thing: back-flashes, forward flashes, even side flashes. It’s almost like it was meant to act as way of getting to know the characters better and I experienced something like, ‘too little, too late.’ The flashes seemed like unnecessary accessories, add-ons to forcefully include what should have been better incorporated as characters were being introduced.

If by the end of a novel you are confused by a novel’s meaning, ask yourself, does the ending look like, or match up to, the beginning? Barn 8’s beginning and ending look nothing alike; they aren’t twins, they aren’t siblings, they don’t even look related. That’s why you’re confused. That’s how you know you were given a fragmented story. There’s no full circle, no idea for a greater understanding. As the reader, you know animal rights was meant to be a core issue of Barn 8, if not the issue, but, again, the story of the actual chickens and agricultural practices comes in second to what is essentially a multitude of flat characters.

Occasionally, thoughtful, well-expressed, fact-bombs are dropped about chickens and agricultural practices, and you’re like, ‘oh yeah, I am meant to be reading a piece of fiction that has to do with larger concepts like animal rights.’ These elements are infrequent though.

There is not enough story about the story to justify the story. That has to be one of the weirdest sentences I have ever constructed.

Christina Schmidt, MA