‘Roost’ by Ali Bryan

Book Reviews

Roost coverReviewed by Lee Kvern

How do you write a review about a book you both loved and wanted more from? Such is the task in reviewing Ali Bryan’s inaugural, sometimes asshole novel, Roost. Asshole being one of many operative cuss words used by the far-from perfect, but perfectly funny single mother, Claudia, who is the story’s narrator.

In the easy-going, congenial style of a practiced blogger, Ali Bryan is assured, funny, and confident with an exacting eye for detail. Roost follows Claudia, in her chaotic daily life with her two children, Wes, four, and Joan, two years and gaining. The novel opens with a sixtieth birthday party for Claudia’s soon-to-be-dead mother: attendees and cast of characters include Claudia’s father, along with Claudia’s brother Dan and his wife, Allison-Jean. Claudia gives her mother a teapot adorned with the characters from the Wizard of Oz. Dan gives his mother (and father) an all-inclusive trip to Cuba:

My mother stands and hugs Dan and Allison-Jean from across the table, and I don’t know whether to start singing “Kumbaya” or stick a fork in my eye.

This is the asshole tone of Claudia, which sets up the bitchy, funny narrative for the rest of Roost; she and Dan’s adolescent sibling rivalry is still alive and present in their adult lives.

To further complicate things, Claudia has an ex-husband Glen, who for all intents and purposes seems a good father, a caring, considerate man, extraordinary in some ways (he cooks dinner for her after a rough day, tries to get her to nap, owns art!) so that I couldn’t figure out why she left him, or he, her–which was never fully revealed in the novel. Rather, there were only hints of humorous dissent but nothing real and/or substantial:

On the other hand, I don’t miss Glen, the father of my children, his love for the Tragically Hip, the sleeveless shirts he wore to the gym, the crude size of his toenails. His early onset back fat and puffy nipples.

Then Claudia’s mother dies unexpectedly. I won’t give away the circumstances, but here is where I found the novel lacking. On one hand, Bryan’s writing is skilled enough to make me laugh, which is no easy feat, humour being entirely subjective. And Bryan is easily capable of invoking these visual, intimate scenes of single motherhood and the sticky, everyday tilt-a-whirl of parenting two young children, while also juggling work. But where Roost leaves me hanging as an invested, eager reader, is some bigger reaction to the death of Claudia’s mother, which we learn about early on in the novel.

Claudia’s tone throughout the novel never falters, barely alters whether referring to her children’s shenanigans, making plans for her mother’s funeral, or acknowledging her own grief, let alone her father’s evident grief, which goes largely unnoticed for some time. And precisely because Bryan is such a skilled, expert writer, I kept waiting, wanting her to stop the highly proficient funny stuff, and at least acknowledge Claudia’s mother’s death in some real, human way.

Wanting aside, the novel, as in life, carries on without Claudia’s mother. Claudia and her children, Claudia and her ex-husband, Claudia and her brother Dan, all of them drifting from day to day through Christmas and in health, oblivious to their father’s private, hoarding grief, Claudia and Glen sorting through the downsides of single parenting when they are called into school to address their son’s obsession with death and methods of dying since his grandmother passed away, as demonstrated in this witty scene with Claudia and Glen:

I turn to Glen. “What does that mean, do you want to get shot in a bucket?”

“It means he’s four,” Glen replies. “Most of what he says doesn’t make sense.”

“I know… it’s just weird. I wonder what he meant.”

“Please don’t ask him.”

I sigh. “I’m not going to ask him.”

“This is the same kid who asked Santa for a peach turbine for Christmas.”


And later, after school, Claudia addresses her son Wes.

“No more shows about death, okay?”

He nods again but I hesitate to leave. Caught up in the wonder of Wes. Of how I created such an odd mix of human. One both observant and clueless. Endearing and completely irritating. This is Glen and I. It’s why we worked, it’s why we failed.

Bryan’s dialogue and character interaction are so spot on, and the rare occasion where she does take the chance and delves beneath the super funny surface of asshole-dom, she is dazzling, more than capable of the emotional resonance that I wanted more of.

One of the funniest scenes in the book is Claudia attending a conference in Calgary where she meets a man, Carl, with whom she has a sexual encounter. Bryan’s description of Carl and the raw sex they have had me laughing out loud:

A man vaguely resembling Matt Damon with black plastic glasses sits beside me. I check his feet for cowboy boots. Doesn’t have them. His forehead is enormous like a beluga whale. A giant Cro-Magnon white board. I need a marker. He shoots out his hand and introduces himself.

“Carl,” he says.

After the sex and the fact, Claudia notes:

… realize this is the last of Carl. For me, that is. The last of Carl and me, or, rather, there will be no Carl and me. He wipes his enormous food-slicked face vigorously with a napkin, and I’ve had a one-night stand with a manatee.

Conversely, the sweetest, most touching scene in Roost is the unexpected switching of luggage with a pregnant woman, who has to be de-planed in order to give birth. Claudia watches from the airplane as they unload the woman, then sees her luggage also being unloaded before they even leave the plane. After landing in Calgary and out of sheer desperation, Claudia takes the last remaining suitcase on the carousel, which happens to be the pregnant woman’s.

The subsequent phone call that Claudia shares with the new, struggling-to-nurse mother is wonderful and sweet and touching. Exactly what I wanted from Claudia for her dead mother and grieving father.

But precisely because Claudia is a sometimes-asshole, and Bryan is a highly skilled writer, I forgive both of them their transgressions.  I look forward to Bryan’s next book, which I hope will encompass the super funny and the super sweet touch that she brings so expertly to the page.

Freehand | 240 pages |  $21.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1554811373

One Comment

  1. Nancy Rogers
    Posted October 31, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    I am a widow and laugh very little any more but when I came to the end of the book I just [heard] Elle’s NOoooooooooooooooo. I wanted more and more and more. It was fabulous, fantastic,hilarious,and best of all ME.

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Lee Kvern

Lee Kvern’s new book of short stories 7 Ways to Sunday, will appear with Enfield & Wizenty in spring 2014. Lee's work has been produced for CBC Radio, and published in Event, Descant, and on Joyland.ca, New York.