The pinked sky is fatter now, and the birds are awake, and I remember something Dad read to me once about the flooded River Arno. How when it filled with broken things—trees, bridges, mirrors, paintings, wagons, houses—it looked like it had been nested over by a giant flock of herons.
My mind is a nest built by herons.
My thoughts are broken things.
—One Thing Stolen, Beth Kephart
For the last two months, 17-year-old Nadia Cara has been in Florence, Italy with her family while her professor father works on his book about the 1966 flood that devastated the city. Her social worker mother is keeping in touch with her clients back home, her brother is embracing and exploring all that Italy has to offer food-wise, and Nadia is working as her father’s research assistant. Or, well, that’s what she’s supposed to be doing.
Instead, she’s become a thief. She steals small items, holes up in her room, builds bird nests out of them, and hides the nests under her bed. There’s a boy she keeps seeing in the city—she’s not sure if he’s following her or she’s following him—but no one else seems to notice him. She’s not sleeping, she’s having an increasingly hard time communicating with people, and she’s starting to question her own perception. She’s scared and she needs help—but she literally can’t find the words to ask for it.
If you’re looking for a plot-driven story, for straightforward and clear narration, One Thing Stolen will not be a good fit. Otherwise, read on!
Nadia’s about as unreliable as narrators come, but she differs from most other unreliable narrators in a couple of crucial ways: first, she knows she’s unreliable, and second, she’s not actively trying to manipulate or mislead the reader. She’s desperate to understand, and to regain her own personal normalcy. She moves from the present to her memories and back again without warning; her descriptions of her surroundings and interactions are understandably fragmented and confused; she loses chunks of time without explanation, and sometimes without even noticing—all of those elements make for a challenging read, but one that allows the reader not just to empathize, but to actively share her experience, albeit second-hand.
I don’t usually do well with symbolism and metaphor—my brain seems to be too analytical for either and both—but even I appreciated how beautifully Kephart’s imagery mirrored Nadia’s journey and experience. Nadia’s bird nests suggest fragility and strength, safety in the eye of the storm; the descriptions of the flood are full of chaos and oddly lovely destruction, but the descriptions of its aftermath are full of hope and change.
Bonus points: As she did in Going Over, Kephart includes an Author’s Note that explains her inspiration, chronicles her research, and offers up a plethora of suggestions for further reading.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or running the show at her local library, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while rewatching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.