Saturday, 16 December 2017

Recommendation: Ornithology by Nicholas Royle

As a boy, I used to go birdwatching quite a lot. All these years later, it's hard to tell how interested in it I actually was, but certainly enough to drag my dad to Wales at some godawful hour in the morning to see red kites (now I see them every so often without any effort, from a train window around Kettering station). But then teenage obsessions took over—music and books and drinking and whathaveyou, and I stopped. I still have an interest, though, and it would annoy me even today if I got a good look at a bird and couldn't work out what it was.

And it annoys me in stories when writers get birds wrong.

Nicholas Royle doesn't get birds wrong in Ornithology, a collection of uncanny stories each containing a literal or metaphorical bird. When he describes birds and their habitats (from wild cliff edges to dingy cities) he gets them very, very right. He refers in one of the stories to a bird book I still own, which was all about identifying birds not by hard to see details but their overall 'look' and character—an idea which has the unfortunate term 'jizz'. But it's a concept that seems to inform Royle's descriptions of birds; he captures their character:

"After the snow melted, the redwings appeared... If I approached, they would flap up into the lower branches, revealing the red flash under the wing, like a handbag clutched beneath the arm." 'The Blue Notebooks'

But much like my teenage self, let's move on from the birds to the stories.
See, I'm not making it up.

If you've ever read any of his work before, you'll know Royle is a hugely accomplished short story writer; his work word-perfect, artfully constructed, sparse but beautiful: a Raymond Carver of the uncanny. As such, Ornithology is hugely satisfying, a showcase for Royle's talents and for the short story form itself. The avian theme doesn't limit the range or variety of the pieces, and not all feature literal birds: there's the swallows from Ovid, the owl from Bladerunner, military aircraft named after birds of prey.

I don't want to say too much about the plots or themes of the individual tales, for fear of ruining their impact. The majority are short, their gaps and ambiguities as meticulously crafted as their prose. Each detail is telling, but each omission, each elision is too. They're stories you have to actively read, rather than let wash over you.

And they are nearly all superb. My favourites were 'Jizz', 'Unfollow', 'The Lure', 'The Blue Notebooks' and the absolutely sublime 'Pink', a tale about a birdwatcher trying to spot a bullfinch, a situation which in a few short pages Royle spins into something disturbingly surreal.

One of the short story collections of the year, in my view.

Worth saying too that Ornithology is a beautifully produced book from Confingo publishing, with sparse but attractive cover design that echoes Royle's prose style, and small pictures of the eggs of different bird species at the start of every story.

Buy here.

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