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When they're liberated from the brutal egg factories in which they lay, live and die (mostly die), hens huddle together in a dangerous way, Deb Olin Unferth's bracing new novel tells us. "They were so used to being in those tiny cages that they were terrified of the space, all that air, the roof high overhead, and above it sky, terrible freedom." Each hen fights to get to the middle of the clump, where they suffocate one by one.

Like Gallus gallus domesticus, we're afraid of that terrible freedom, too. We hide in our homes, staring at screens to distract ourselves from what we don't want to see.

But maybe our independent spirit isn't quite bred out of us yet. Maybe all hope is not lost for the hens, either. "Barn 8" is about what can happen when we shake off our stupor and challenge the status quo. Satirical and smart, veering from hilarious comedy to incisive commentary, "Barn 8" demands that we reconsider our unexamined lives. Somewhere, in that great activist desert in the sky, Edward Abbey and his Monkey Wrench Gang are applauding.

In "Barn 8," a wayward hen that has stumbled out of a collapsing pen and strolled away becomes the catalyst for an audacious plan. Fed up with conditions at the factory farm on which they work, Cleveland and Janey, auditors for the U.S. egg industry, decide to steal a million chickens. They enlist a network of quirky and committed activists for this impossible act of rebellion.

But is it impossible? Where Unferth's sympathies lie is obvious, though she is never sanctimonious and even offers up an argument for cheap factory farming. "Raise the price of eggs and the poor man's family doesn't eat," a supervisor tells Cleveland. Unferth also highlights the disconnect between an activist's dream and a chicken's reality. Most of the stolen hens will die, the activists know. But isn't death better than pain, filth and misery, locked away from everything that makes a chicken a chicken?

Author of five other novels, Unferth excels at the grim details of barn life. But she's also a terrific comic writer, and her forays into chicken history and psychology are delightful, especially when she ventures into the mind of Bwwaauck, the Barn 8 escapee who makes a promise to the sisters she leaves behind.

"There is a particular cheep isolated by bird researchers who specialize in the Gallus gallus. This sound, when tagged onto the end of a vocalization, translates to something like, 'It's coming.' So a mother might cheep to her chicks, 'Follow me up here! Danger — it's coming! … This cheep works as a rudimentary form of the future tense."

Bwwaauck flees her broken cage on that pledge of "It's coming!" On her feathered shoulders — do chickens have shoulders? — rests the hope of every hen on this farm. Maybe she's our hope for redemption, too.

Connie Ogle is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in Florida.

Barn 8

By: Deb Olin Unferth.

Publisher: Graywolf Press, 282 pages, $16.

Event: Wordplay book festival, May 9, downtown Minneapolis.

Set in Boston in 1997, Lily King's new novel, "Writers & Lovers," opens onto a scene of sorrows.

The 31-year-old narrator, Casey Peabody, an aspiring writer, has recently been dumped by her longtime boyfriend. Her mother has died suddenly on a vacation, and she detests her father. She has writer's block, health anxieties, a mountain of college debt, and an unsettling feeling that there is someone else living inside of her whom she is unacquainted with. She waits tables in a hostile work environment and lives in a potting shed. All this before the problematical lovers of the title have even entered the scene.

Yet if King has dropped her protagonist deep in a forest of misery with no discernible path out, she has also given Casey a compelling voice and a perceptive mind. She is at the same time idealistic and hardheaded. Early in the novel, Casey thinks about her circle of writer friends who chucked the uncertainty of writing to become Realtors, attorneys, comfortable spouses: "People playing roles, getting further and further away from themselves." Even though she is unable to write her novel, a work centering on her mother's time as a child in Cuba, it never leaves her mind.

Much of the turn of "Writers & Lovers" concerns the two men who appear in Casey's life, both grieving writers with troubling personalities. It's worth mentioning that the community of writers who people the coffee shops and bookstores of this novel seem a pretty narcissistic bunch. But the conversations that Casey has with them are terrific — King's gift is to suspend the reader, to make the wait for resolution fascinating.

Ultimately it is neither the writers nor the lovers who enable Casey to find her way out of the forest (though perhaps King was wise not to have added "Friends and Mentors" to the title — klunk!). After nearly crushing Casey with burdens, King creates a set of characters who can lighten them: a waiter at the restaurant; a fellow (unpublished) novelist; her brother; a literary agent.

Readers of King's 2014 novel, "Euphoria," who are hoping for an even more remarkable novel in "Writers & Lovers" may be disappointed. There is nothing comparable to the brilliance of Nell Stone, a Margaret Meade stand-in in the earlier work, and the excitements of "Writers & Lovers" are on a smaller scale, though equally well written. Most impressive are the sections that outline Casey's struggle to write and publish her book:

"The hardest thing about writing is getting in every day, breaking through the membrane. The second-hardest thing is getting out. Sometimes I sink down too deep and come up too fast. Afterward I feel wide open and skinless. The whole world feels moist and pliable. When I get up from the desk I straighten the edges of everything."

Tom Zelman is a professor emeritus of English at the College of St. Scholastica and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Writers & Lovers

By: Lily King.

Publisher: Grove Press, 324 pages, $27.

Event: Wordplay festival, May 9, Loft Literary Center, 1011 S. Washington Av., Mpls.