BOOK REVIEW: An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According To one Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass

With a title that could be classified as a short story within itself comes the brilliant collection of stories by Jessie Greengrass ‘An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It’ (which future references will be classified as ‘An Account Of…’).

What can sometimes be missing from anthologies of short stories are an emotional connection, I’ve read a great many and sometimes the writers sacrifice the emotiveness of the piece to add a twist in the tale, some pull it off but a great many just don’t make that work either. However, what we have with ‘An Account Of…’ are twelve wonderfully crafted, emotive and evocative stand-alone stories that continue to leave their effect on you long after you have finished – with many of them painting the ordinariness of life in wonderful detail and beautifully crafted prose. There are subtle sub-texts woven ever so delicately within each story that can be unpacked and expanded upon and in doing so I found that each story had a meaty underbelly which would work wonderfully in a reading club, generating discussion after discussion of topical debate about our planet, the future and life as we know it.

The title story ‘An Account Of…’ kicks off the collection and sets the reader up for a tour de force from the brilliant mind of Jessie Greengrass. When reading, I found the prose delightfully constructed the voice within the piece strong and most importantly it deals with the very topical issue of over farming, of raping the world of its natural resources and nature for the use of man and all his endeavours. The placing of man as the dominant species and the pestilence he has over nature is clearly defined in this piece; serving us a subtle warning of the contemporary issues raised above. Seeing the story unfold is quite emotive and sits very uneasy on the conscious – as we watch an island destroyed in the pursuit of greed and self-fulfilment.

‘The other way to get the feathers off was to boil the birds whole. To do this we hit them once about the skull so that they were dead or stunned and put them in a kettle, two in the kettle, having to push quite hard to get them in, and then under it we laid more of the birds like logs and the chicks if we could find them like kindling in the centre. The birds were fat and their feathers greased and they burned well, better than I would have expected, long and hot. When the kettles were boiled the feathers came away quite easily and we could stuff them into sacks and throw the leftover mess into the sea as before. This way was the easiest. We congratulated ourselves on such a practical solution to the apparently intractable problem of fuel on the barren rock, and we said that amongst so many birds how could this few be missed, or this next few, or the few after that even.’

This story is like nothing else that has ever come before it, a brilliant new voice of short fiction that is capable of becoming a game changer in years to come. There are so many brilliant stories within the collection and I could spend all my time talking about each one in detail but I won’t. You. The reader should enjoy making the discovery as much as I have, the surprise of finding a gratifyingly crafted gem and enjoying the jeweller who made it.

‘On Time Travel’ is a story about the uncertainty of one’s future, the protagonist is a girl who struggles to exist in a world where her father no longer is – being unable to process a future without him, she delves back into her memories which are her escape into time travel. I found that the devises Greengrass deploys in this story hugely original, powerful and there is a newness to an over saturated genre (Time Travel) that is both intelligent and haunting. Although not a lot happens, no action set-pieces its’s simplistic story is more than enough to drive this story home.

‘All the Other Jobs’ is one of my favourite pieces in the collection and for me resonated greatly with my own life, the not knowing what to do and the apprehension / bleakness of making that first decision that would shape your future. Greengrass has a panache in talking about the things we don’t want to talk about, in doing so enables us to question the outcome of the story and helps the story resonate with our own life choices and decisions.

‘Planning my life on Svalbard I believed that if only I could make it look from the outside like the kind of life lived by the sort of person I was not then I could, by inhabiting it, become another, and doing that I could erase my feelings of discomfort, the pervasive sense I had of having made a hash of things. If only my life could be made to fit into the world like a tenon to a mortise then I would no longer feel so displaced; but the exterior and the interior are not mirrors of each other. My doubts would go north with me, and then within weeks I would have made sticky marks on the pristine surface of the ice.’

‘The ophrastus and the Dancing Plague’ again was a masterstroke by Greengrass, the story, topic, plot and characters are all amusing and like something you’d probably dream about after eating your bodyweight in cheese before going to bed. The theme of the ‘dancing plague’ I wished was more of a central theme to the story – if afforded more time, more exposure at the point of dancing, insight into the devastation caused by it; I feel that this would have been another knock out story. I enjoyed it, but with such a brilliant title and thematic ideas at play – it could have been outstanding. The visual storytelling that Greengrass deploys here is hauntingly brilliant and benefits from its arresting subtle bled of horror; I just wished that it were more immersive and we could have stayed a little longer.

‘Some Kind of Safety’ is a wonderful tale, very short (could be classified as Flash Fiction) but mark my words. ‘Though she is little she is fierce’. I found this story one of the stand out pieces in a collection that had me trying to savour every sentence, wanting to prolong the pleasure. It reminded me slightly of the film ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ Greengrass crafts an apocalyptic tale following the lives of what we are lead to believe the only two remaining people on the planet trying to survive in a fall out bunker.

‘Marie and I haven’t spoken for sixteen months and nine days. It’s been four months and twenty-two days since I saw her, but I hear her so I know that she is safe. She painted, nasturtiums next to the daffodils in my window’s window-box, but those two would never be in flower together. The day I counted all the coat buttons she moved some toggles from one pile to the other so I had to start again. She tore out the last page of every third mystery novel in the library and she keeps them in a strong box. That is not what the strong boxes are for. I wrote my initials on all the Kraft cheese slices with a pin and then used the laminator to reseal them. I have no way of telling is she knows. Sometimes when I wake up suddenly in the night with my heart thumping and the sweats, I think that I’ve been calling her name, and that she’ll come.’

It’s a wonderful expose on the human condition, how we make decisions and stick to them, how we could be facing the end of the world with someone but they offend us in some way and the shutters go up, whatever they do isn’t good enough, but when we think about it, the grudges we bare, can we really remember why we are arguing in the first place?I know I can relate to this…

‘All we can do is pick, one way or the other, and then behave as if the way we chose was right.’

‘Three Thousand, Nine Hundred and Forty-Five Miles’ has deep and meaningful characterisations and is also insight into the mind of someone who is obsessed. Greengrass deploys her pen with skill and guile, keeping us, the reader in the dark of what is occurring in the story until the final third. It is a brilliant depiction on our consumerist lifestyle, wanting what you cannot have and when you get it, you begin to see you did not need it in the first place. It is about lives imagined and choices that could change everything. It is gripping. It is insightful. As delightful as it is hard hitting – I really love the savage themes this story has and seeing that explored by Greengrass makes me look at my wife differently when I am away on business trips and return to find her somewhat aloof!

‘It began to seem after that as if everyone else I knew was also away for the summer; or perhaps they weren’t away at all but only I had lost the knack of seeing them after the preceding months spent almost exclusively in the company of the man I was in love with, months in which we had talked for hours about whether we could make it work between us, and about how I felt I had finally found in him the thing I had long wanted without knowing I had wanted it, the lack of which had always made me feel until now slightly ill at ease.’

‘The Comfort of the Dead’ and ‘Scropton, Sudbury, Marchington, Uttoxeter’ are both worth a special mention here before I round up the remaining stories for their brilliant prose, originality and subtle cadences that ensured they had a profound effect on me long after reading. I do not want to go into too much detail about these two as I feel you would enjoy them both more if I kept quiet and let the writer take you on that journey herself!

There are of course some stories that I would put under the category of filler stories, but the thing that sets this collection apart from the rest is that you care about the filler stories. ‘Winter, 2058’, ‘The Lonesome Southern Trails of Knut the Whaler’, ‘The Politics of Minor Resistance’ and ‘Dolphin’ are great and some of these connect with other readers more than they did with me; I guess that is the sign of a great writer. Being able to connect with a variety of people from varying backgrounds is no mean feat and if you allow Greengrass’s words to ruminate with you, you cannot help but enjoy and take something very special away from this undeniable talent and reading experience.

I am always looking for books that challenge and books that make you think and I found it with ‘An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It’ – so I’d highly recommend purchasing a copy. For short story lovers it needs to find a home on your shelves it’s an important book in the field of anthologies.

Jessie Greengrass we will be watching you with high expectations and look forward to your follow up; that I hear on the grape vine you are busy working on!

Jessie Greengrass

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Jessie Greengrass was born in 1982. She studied philosophy in Cambridge and London, where she now lives with her partner and child. An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It won the Edge Hill Prize 2016.

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According To one Who Saw It was published by John Murray on 23rd March 2017.

You can purchase a copy of An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According To one Who Saw It from FoylesWaterstones, or The Book Depository:

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To discover more about John Murray click here

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Review by Ross Jeffery

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