Uncovering the Unsettling in the Everyday
I like a strand of darkness in my fiction so I was delighted when this collection landed on my doormat. Before I even turned to the unsettling tales within I was captivated by the design, the robin egg blue edging and the illustrations of selected birds' eggs after the dedication.
Ornithology is, I believe, the first foray into book publishing by Manchester-based Confingo, better known for their magazine of fiction, poetry, and art. It was released in June 2017 and brings together sixteen of Nicholas Royle's stories featuring birds.
This is Royle's third short story collection, one that we are promised will be disquieting and surreal but will also offer moments of black comedy. Several of the stories were written for horror anthologies but there is little of blood and guts here, with most tending to the weird and uncanny, and one (Gannets) that seemed like straightforward literary fiction. Of the sixteen stories, The Blue Notebooks and The Lure were already freely available online via publishers and twelve of the other stories are collected here having previously been included in magazines, anthologies, or broadcast on the radio. Two (Jizz, Stuffed) are original to this collection. Although the link is, as the title suggests, birds, they are more peripheral to some stories than others and this is by no means 'a book of stories about birds'.
a touch of transgression
Nicholas Royle is an editor at Salt Publishing, an academic at Manchester Metropolitan University, and runs Nightjar Press which releases other people's dark short stories as limited edition chapbooks. His first story collection, Mortality, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. He's a keen amateur birdwatcher, which lends weight to the detail of the bird references in these stories. No doubt delighting in the confusion, his friend, also called Nicholas Royle (another academic, this time at the University of Sussex) released a novel in May 2017 called An English Guide to Birdwatching, which is unfortunately easy to associate in your mind with this collection, particularly as they did some joint promotional events.
Unfollow was a strong first story: the unsettling in the everyday, a touch of transgression as it builds to its conclusion, and dark humour. It also gives the reader their first taste of the obsession that crops up throughout this collection, whether with a person as in Unfollow (and in a different context in both The Lure and The Nightingale) or with books, birds, a particular nesting site, or health problems.
As with some of the other stories, birds are central to the plot of Unfollow but any unexpected behaviour comes from the main character (and his cat). However, elsewhere birds appear in metamorphosis, metaphor, and motif. One of the stand-out stories was The Blue Notebooks, which was written for and about Manchester Central Library. Birds were used beautifully here to illustrate the reliance on sight, and the trust placed in the visual, by a writer and amateur bird-watcher with a degenerative eye condition.
Another highlight was Lovebites, a story that shifts your perspective partway through and appears at first to be about something it isn't. It contains the wonderful image of 'a scrawny, straggly stream in an oversized canyon bound by tall buildings, like an old man's shrivelled neck in a loose shirt collar from younger days.'
full of fine writing and unusual situations stemming from the mundane
There are equally keenly-observed and poetic descriptions elsewhere, for instance in The Kestrel and the Hawk in which we encounter a waitress whose 'eyes are the grey of paving stones or pebble-dash' and the main character passes 'a house Edward Hopper might have painted'. Again, the story appears to end up being about something other than the bird-watching trip it seemed to begin with.
In Pink, an eerie tale of bullfinch domination, Geoff bought binoculars and took up bird-watching when his marriage ended: 'Unable to see any reason for happiness or contentment close at hand, he had thought maybe if he could extend the range of his vision, things might not look quite so bleak.'
Ornithology is full of fine writing and unusual situations stemming from the mundane. The main characters are often middle-aged men, birdwatchers, academics – sometimes all at once – but that shouldn't preclude a wide audience, and there's a nice line in the dark side of love. I found myself drawn in by the detail and frequently holding my breath as the tension built. Occasionally I was still holding my breath when the story ended.
If you like short stories to wrap up neatly and present you with a definitive version of events then this may not be the book for you. In several stories there are hints... there are observations which you can piece together, but you are left to draw your own conclusions. There was an air of detachment in some of the stories reminiscent of John Wyndham's ability to have his narrator offer precise observation despite being in the thick of terrifying events, and Wyndham fans will also appreciate the air of menace, disturbances in and from the natural world, and the unsettled confusion of the central character in several stories in this collection.
From the spine-tinglingly chilling to the darkly wry, this is a collection of the eerie, the poignant and the downright odd.
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