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In Search of the Perfect Singing Flamingo

by Claire Tacon

In her sophomore novel, Claire Tacon takes a gentle and measured approach to the story of one family’s experience with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that results in developmental and physical disabilities. The novel is told from alternating first-person perspectives: Starr, the 28-year-old woman who has Williams; her father, Henry; her sister, Melanie; and Henry’s 18-year-old Asian co-worker, Darren. These narrative points of view combine into an engaging family saga and road-trip adventure.

Henry and Darren work at Frankie’s Funhouse, a bizarre arcade/children’s party venue in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. Henry services the aging animatronics and Darren dresses up as the establishment’s mascot, Frankie the Squirrel. The pair, along with Starr, become unlikely travelling companions when Henry decides to take a road trip to a town just outside of Chicago to buy an animatronic flamingo. This is meant as an addition to the robotic band he’s set up for Starr to “perform” with in his basement. Darren, for his part, hopes to get to the Chicago comic con, where he plans to surprise an ex-girlfriend he’s been pining for.

Tacon creates some lovely scenes among the trio. Henry’s main goal in life is to make Starr happy, and Darren can only be described as a sweet kid. Starr is a gentle soul who – despite sometimes feeling overwhelmed or confused by what’s happening around her – has an innocence and eagerness to please that is endearing. In fact, most of the book’s characters (with the exception of Frankie’s racist  manager, Darren’s douchey “friend,” and the abusive border guards who provide the emotionally resonant climax) are really, really nice. Even Starr’s mother and sister, the two characters who are the most level-headed about Starr’s care, are somewhat unbelievably understanding and accepting of their lot.

There is conflict, though most of it arises out of Darren’s family life. And in this era of issues around appropriation of voice, one wonders at Tacon’s choice to write from the perspectives of a person with a disability and a character from a different cultural background. But at least the author succeeds at making her characters, and their stories, touching and resonant.