A long title well worth typing out.
Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
First Published: 30th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 18th November 2016
A sailor/explorer tells the story of a species’ extinction; a child wants to go back in time, further than the years spent in a neglectful home; a visit to the zoo reiterates just how little a girl’s father cares.
An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It is an incredible collection of short stories that share basic themes – some, human intervention, others, choice. Spanning from the medieval period to some decades into the future (2050, to be exact), Greengrass’s book is one of beautiful writing and subtle shocks.
The overall reading experience of this book is one of ‘clicks’, or ‘ah ha!’ moments as we often call them. Light bulbs over heads. Greengrass’s general process, the ‘subtle shocks’ referred to, means that after a few stories have been completed you get into the habit of looking closely at the narrative to see what the nub of it all is; even the few unassuming tales in this book have at least a small moment behind them. Sometimes you get answers, a more or less bluntly-spoken meaning. Other times you have to piece it together yourself. The storytelling means that there is always something there to keep you reading; even at those times it seems the story is lengthy (in relative terms) you know that there’s a reason.
And these shocks, these points, that Greengrass includes… they could never be called brilliant, exactly, because they tend to be harrowing, but they do lean towards the exceptional in their telling. A few stories tell of cold climates and the harm done to them so you get those tales of extinction in all their violence; the author spares nothing.
To collect the feathers, there were different ways. We could not take the bodies all the way back across the Atlantic because they would spoil. At first we killed the birds and plucked them, and we tossed the corpses off the cliff and they fell into the sea. The birds looked so much smaller without their feathers on. Then we told ourselves this method took too much of our time.
The title story does this best, containing precisely the sort of information you would think it does. A report of how the Great Auks fell into extinction, which echoes the stories of the sailors of 1840; Greengrass writes from the explorer viewpoint but her thoughts of protection, environmentalism, seep out from the text. The story is full of human destruction, how in exploring and charting we are inevitably, for all our good intensions, bringing harm to places humans had never previously been and, it could be argued, should still stay away from. Echoes of the future abound – will this happen more in time? Greengrass gets to the point, and yet the story is purposefully vague. And full of excuses of the sort seen constantly – it’s not the humans’/this particular group of people’s fault this happened!
Another standout is On Time Travel, in which a child speaks of her longing for the distant past whilst recounting episodes in her dysfunctional family’s life. Rose-tinted glasses abound as the girl explains the benefits of that past time; the reader sees the flaws but then it doesn’t seem to matter when it’s just a dream. It would spoil the effect to discuss anything further, but it’s enough to say that Greengrass’s ending is surprising and incredibly poignant.
Although I am not able to deviate from the set scripts, I do sometimes alter my voice when I speak to the people who call premium phone lines in the thin hope that I will be able to help them. I do this on the occasions when I am for some reason unable to dissociate my mind from my body to the extent that time can pass over my unhindered. On these occasions, my awareness of my existence within the warehouse as unbearable comes in waves; it throbs in my temples and fills my mouth with the taste of sour milk…
Something that may or may not work in the book’s favour depending on what you think of it is Greengrass’s use of the same basic voice and writing style throughout. It’s an incredibly literary style that harks back to Victorian monologues, first-person narratives – her words are not historic, rather it’s a gentle, flowing style, full of beauty. The potential issue then is not in the style itself but in the constancy of it. Some may enjoy the stability of it as well as the way it can suit a person looking back on their life, using adult language to explain their childhood. Others may not find the maturity of the vocabulary matches the ages or personality of the narrators and that that is problematic. It’s very subjective – Greengrass has a lovely style, but does it fit the book as a whole? In regards to the first-person, on occasion the author defers to third. It appears a choice made in order to tell the story in the most expressive way each time and the switching points of view do not seem out of place.
This book warrants your attention but never demands it. It has a lot to say but it can be wistful, both an escape and a work-out for the mind. If you like the sound of the narration you will most likely find it a wonderful reading experience that is difficult to sum up – the way it can leave you speechless has a real-world impact.
An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It is a very fine collection by a very talented and thoughtful writer. One to savour… and potentially scribble all over.
This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.
November 22, 2016, 5:33 pm
Ooh, I like the sound of this one. I don’t read short stories often but I might have to check this one out sometime.
November 22, 2016, 5:55 pm
Loving the title but alas that is probably where it ends for me.
Loving the sound of the 2017 What’s In A Name Challenge. I’ll be sure to share the details.
November 28, 2016, 9:57 am
Stefanie: It is a very good collection.
Tracy: Fair enough :) And thank you!