I read Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend a few years ago and although I enjoyed it I wasn’t nearly as impressed as many readers I trust so approached The Vulnerables with caution, particularly as it came billed as a pandemic novel featuring a parrot. Set during the spring of 2020, Nunez’s novel follows an unnamed writer as she finds her way through lockdown, taking up residence in a palatial apartment to care for an acquaintance’s macaw.
But how could any of this have really happened? I must be making it up.
Our narrator walks the deserted streets of New York, enjoying the unaccustomed solitude, spending as much time as she can away from her small apartment. It’s the early days of the pandemic, some have found themselves forced to stay put unexpectedly including one of her publisher friend’s authors, anxious about her parrot Eureka now that his caretaker has done a bunk back to his parents’ country home. Our narrator agrees to step in, entertained by this gorgeous playful creature, so responsive to her friendly overtures. When the bird’s original caretaker turns up again, chucked out by his parents, our narrator is resentful. They form an uneasy alliance eventually deepening into friendship. When lockdown is lifted, Eureka’s owner returns and it’s time for our narrator to go home.
Only when I was young did I believe that it was important to remember what happened in every novel I read. Now I know the truth: what matters is what you experience while reading, the states of feeling that the story evokes, the questions that rise to your mind, rather than the fictional event described.
Nunez’s novel is an absolute joy. Witty, erudite and wonderfully discursive, it’s packed with literary allusions, memories and stories about acquaintances and friends. Noting that Chekov’s idea to write a novel about his friends had no doubt been vetoed by them, our narrator gives her female friends pretty flower names to protect their identities while her resented roommate is named after a weed. Ageing, the modern world, the pandemic, climate change, friendship, writing and reading are just a smattering of the subjects our narrator muses on. Given the many references to the blurring of autobiography and fiction together with similarities to Nunez’s own life, it’s hard not to view this as a slice of autofiction although perhaps a personal meditation might be a better description. Any doubts I might have had about reading this one were swiftly dispelled: I loved it.
Virago Press: London 9780349018119 256 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)