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Reading Amal El-Mohtar's "Pockets" sent me rushing back to re-read "The Truth About Owls". I read this odd story when it first appeared online in January, and my strongest memory of that reading is an intense respect for the author's craft but also a deep sense of confusion about the story's publication in Strange Horizons. Calling "The Truth About Owls" an SFF story felt tenuous even to me - a reader who loves to see genre boundaries set aflame.

What a difference new reading circumstances can make. Having excised my thoughts on 'real SFF' in my post about Sophia Samatar's "Walkdog", and having recently read Silvia Morento-Garcia's weirdly normal SFF novel Signal to Noise, I approached my second reading of "The Truth About Owls" with much less genre weight on my back. Before, I was mildly in love with this story. Now, I've reached the shouting-from-the-rooftops-let's analyse-this-in-depth stage. I can tell you're all super excited about that.

"The Truth About Owls" is close to my idea of story perfection. Although it lingers less on creating descriptions than the deliciously written "Pockets", it still pays close attention to the importance of detail in creating an enticing story:

Anisa's eyes are black, and she no longer hates them. She used to wish for eyes the color of her father's, the beautiful pale green-blue that people were always startled to see in a brown face. But she likes, now, having eyes and hair of a color those same people find frightening.

The story's overall plot, and the narrative flow within its individual sections, is strongly paced. The character's voices are natural, easy and distinct. Not a word of dialogue is wasted or out of place. Yet this story is far from perfunctory, or minimalist in tone. In fact, it overflows with warmth. I'm so impressed that El-Mohtar managed to write such a tautly controlled story while retaining detail and narrative personality. And I love that this story is based around a closely crafted structure - using an interesting recurring device, which reads almost like a non-fiction poem, to pull this tale together. In my eyes, "The Truth About Owls" just does everything right.

I could spend hours detailing what makes "The Truth About Owls" so great, and I suspect I could write multiple posts about different aspects of it. This is kind of the trouble with short fiction - you feel like they should only merit short posts but really each story is a tiny world you could explore in hundred of love struck, effusive lines. In this post, to keep from tiring our readers, I'm just going to concentrate on the story's wonderful use structure. I'm know I'm a bit obsessed with structure - sorry/notsorry.

"The Truth About Owls" is made up of short sections which each act as individual "scenes". The story progresses from scene to scene, with the equivalent of a 'fade to black' moment represented by the section breaks placed at the end of each episode. Each new section is headed by a different italicised opener, and each of these opening statements details a fact about owls.

Building a story from disconnected sections is a smart way to create a tantalising story. Practically, this form leaves spaces in the text which present hanging questions, which provides the reader with plenty of room to engage in imagination and analysis. This makes the story feel longer and richer than its size may seem to allow. Using this technique also allows El-Mohtar to control the pace of her story; revealing details slowly and then redirecting the story before fully uncovering everything for the reader. Setting a story up like this is a type of literary seduction as it heightens the reader's anticipation by offering glimpses of the truth only to insist again and again that the reader be patient. The choice to build this story from short flash scenes injects an irresistible air of poignancy as the reader broods over how little and how much information they have been given after each section.

"The Truth About Owls" other distinctive structural feature - the italicised openings which precede each new section - is also designed to hook readers and yet encourage them to wait patiently for the storyteller to reveal all. At its most basic structural level, repeating facts about owls in a regular pattern ensures that readers feel all the sections of this story are linked together. A repeating pattern provides a comforting bridge across the disparate sections of this story, and reassures the reader that they are on their way to being able to see the story's full picture. Using a repeating device also sets up the idea that a story is a traditional puzzle which will ultimately reveal its secrets. Readers are taught to associate patterns with the potential to solve. So, in theory, including a repeating device is a good way to keep readers from reacting impatiently to a story's deliberately obscuring manner of pacing. Including these italicised sections sets up an effective hook; a weird and random hook which enhances the story's strange vibe, while drawing the reader on with the promise of answers.

El-Mohtar uses this repeated device to build the story's darkening tone over the course of the story, and to complement the story of Anisa, the main character:

A group of owls is called a Parliament.

Owls are bad luck.

The summer Anisa saw the owl kill the rooster was the summer Israel bombed the country. She always thinks of it that way, not as a war—she doesn't remember a war.

"The Truth About Owls" simply would not have the same tone, or pace, and perhaps even the same emotional resonance without being shaped around its particular structure. Which is why I'm such a big fan of structure - choosing the right structure can make a piece of art. As a reader, attention to structure really gets me going.

As the story progresses it opens out into a multi-faceted piece. Like I said at the beginning, I could spend pages analysing different aspects of this story. However, I'm aware that would test the patience of many readers. Before I finish I'll just mention one last little detail I absolutely adored. Both "Pockets" and "The Truth About Owls" are shaped around female protagonists and female relationships. "The Truth About Owls" shows the growing friendship between Izzy, an owl handler, and the young protagonist Anisa. Anisa also bonds with a female owl, Blodeuwedd, and this allows the story to mention Blodeuwedd's namesake - a woman from Welsh mythology. Finally, the story gives the reader a quick and clear understanding of the difficult relationship between Anisa and her mother. "The Truth About Owls" pushes ladies to the front. So great and I look forward to reading many more stories from Amal El-Mohtar!

"The Truth About Owls" by Amal El-Mohtar is available online at Strange Horizons.

Supplemental Material

Introduction to "The Truth About Owls"
Podcast: "The Truth About Owls"
Jodie reviews Amal El-Mohtar's "Pockets"


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