BOOK REVIEW: Ornithology by Nicholas Royle

Years ago, I read Royle’s first collection of short stories, Mortality, and thought him too in thrall to JG Ballard, and if Royle hasn’t totally come out of Ballard’s short story shadow in Ornithology, he does reach more convincingly for his own form and style.

In ‘Unfollow’ we get the alienation and anonymity of the suburbs, and the first in a series of obsessive, solitary narrators. Here comes the obligatory mention for Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: if ever O’Connor’s thesis was exemplified it is here. Like Twitter, this story is all about the outside, not the inside, the calling of the blackbird analogous to the fleeting contact of social media. The increase in the size of the animals grow in conjunction with the size of the obsession. But the ending itself is less easy to define, and that’s fine with me. I don’t have to have everything figured out about a short story to enjoy the questions posed within its frame. And the ending is left deliberately unresolved, not just left that way because the writer didn’t know what to do.

Like the obsessive narrators he creates, you can imagine Royle obsessing over each of these stories. That’s perhaps why we must wait so long between Royle’s books, but it is this quality of care and attention that makes them worth waiting for.

In ‘Murder’ there’s the strong sense of place that make these stories so convincing, and throughout the collection there’s plenty in the prose for the bird loving reader to enjoy: ‘the blood dipped beak of the glossy black chough’, ‘Like clockwork soldiers, jackdaws march,’ ‘the ratcheting cry of the magpie.’ Although I was less keen on ‘anxiety’s talons’ there’s enough here to merit comparison with that other great Mancunian on birds, nature writer Jim Perrin.

With ‘The Obscure Bird’ I loved the moment when the character’s head turns beyond 90 degrees like an owl, and this story echoed ‘Mrs Fox’ by Sarah Hall, the psychological condition of the protagonist echoed in the characteristics common to the bird or animal described, a short story trope dating back to Kafka’s insect.

Jizz’ the juvenile joke turns into something much darker, the hunting of birds and the continuing extinction of bird species. The title indicates the immaturity of the character, and this story benefits from a switch in point of view, and subtle intimations of horror.

With ‘Stuffed’ the author’s own book collecting obsession becomes evident in a story about both the imagination, and a fiction writer’s constant use of his own life as material for fiction, the self at slight remove. In ‘Pink’ there’s the recently-divorced birdwatchers’ quest to see the bullfinch, and again the bird is used as psychological projection, and in this case be careful what you wish for. This use of psychological projection/projection/correlative, whatever you want to reduce it to, is what elevates these stories above the ‘middle-class ennui’ detritus dominant in the English short story canon and is the missing synoptic link for the deadbeats who read stories and think nothing has happened.

In ‘Bee Eater’ the birds ‘sounded like they were in my head’ but this time the bird is a malignancy elsewhere in the body, while in ‘Gannets’ there’s an extra marital affair caused by a husband with his head in the stars, with the character Claire having to make a gannet dive for herself, one way or the other, and the men between which she has to choose made analogous to the planets Venus and Saturn.

The second half of the book, from ‘The Lure’ onwards, there’s a subtle change in the stories, and, bird theme notwithstanding, they don’t feel as easily linked as before. The first page of ‘The Lure’ is a lure in itself, the most lyrically seductive passage of prose in the book, and in ‘The Nightingale’ there is a noticeably different first-person narrator.

Within some of the stories, the birds don’t feel particularly intrinsic to the story, and in the otherwise exemplary ‘Gannets’ and ‘The Nightingale’ it is arguable that the birds need not have featured, and only do so in service of the collections’ theme.

Blue Notebooks’ is wonderfully evocative story about what was Manchester Central Library, now the relatively non-descript ‘City Library’. You can equate its revamp with someone who has had Botox: it looks better superficially but something has been lost from the soul. I enjoyed ‘Lovebites’ less, the train toilet sex stretching my suspension of disbelief.

The acerbically humorous ‘Children’ brings the collection to a suitably dark conclusion and is perhaps the most Ballardian. This was the only time where I felt the anxiety of influence. But these stories, most literally revealed in ‘The Lure’, are all about masks. They are also Black Mirror before Black Mirror, not since, and for that reason alone this exquisite collection of correlatives needs checking out.

Ornithology is published by Confingo Publishing and is available here – we recommend having sound on your computer.

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Nicholas Royle

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Nicholas Royle is the author of seven novels, two novellas and three volumes of short fiction​. He has edited twenty anthologies of short stories. A senior lecturer in creative writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University and head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize, he also runs Nightjar Press, publishing original short stories as signed, limited-edition chapbooks. He works as an editor for Salt Publishing.

Reviewed by Neil Campbell

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