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Nicholas Royle – An English Guide To Birdwatching

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Things are about to get birdy, wordy, and full of critique.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 334
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-43494-4
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 23rd May 2017
Rating: 5/5

Silas Woodlock moves to Seaford with his wife, Ethel, leaving their undertaking business in the hands of their son. The couple find the town a bit too elderly for their tastes; in time Ethel proposes they join a local writing course as a way to keep busy. By the end of the course an initially reluctant Silas has written a short story about birds; by accident it’s left in the local pub, not to be found again… until Silas spots it in an anthology. He goes to confront the plagiarist, one Nicholas Royle. Meanwhile a minor literary critic, Stephen Osmer, is struggling to make his mark but gains a pinch of notoriety interrupting and later reporting on an event held by two writers of the same name, the novelist Nicholas Royle and the literary theorist Nicholas Royle.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is the highly meta second novel/non-fiction mash-up from literary theorist Nicholas Royle, not to be confused with the novelist Nicholas Royle, writer of In Camera and Salt Publishing’s short story anthologies, though both men are included on the page. On the surface and, in fact, in some ways once the surface is scratched, it’s as confusing as it has likely been so far in this review – expect a lot of commentary.

This is a novel of a sort not often seen. It’s a novel that pushes deep into and past what’s not often seen to become something incredibly literary, requiring all of the reader’s attention but to great reward. Many descriptions are possible; Robert Macfarlane’s thoughts, featured on the back cover, sum it up well: “a curiously compelling investigation of the nature of writing and the writing of nature”. Royle takes the concept of literary criticism, spins it around, scrunches it up and creates something new from it. There is a story included; it’s not the most important part, but then it’s not unimportant either.

Near the start of the novel we read a fictional report of a factual event, a conversation type evening in which the two writers named Nicholas Royle spoke of their discovery of the other. Speaking of real world happenings here, the novelist Nicholas Royle (published by Salt) sent for consideration to a literary magazine a short story. Literary theorist Nicholas Royle (author of the book you’re currently reading a review of) did the same. Both stories were rejected and both rejections sent to critic Nicholas – the editor of the magazine thought they were both novelist Nicholas. Theorist Nicolas contacted novelist Nicholas about the mix up and they have since become friends. One day fairly recently they spoke together at an event about their respective work, which is the event theorist Nicholas refers to in this book currently being reviewed. Theorist Nicholas is now also a novelist as evidenced by this and one previous book.

If you’re still with me, you may appreciate the following quotation, which is taken from a scene after the event in which the two Nicholas Royles are discussing the evening and which effectively describes the book you are currently reading a review of (ellipses mine):

I’d like to write a novel that would try to do justice to the reality of birds… but also to observe the novel itself, a kind of screened-off or embedded space within a novel in which it would be possible to explore the relations between birds and words, birdwatching and wordwatching… It wouldn’t be subtext, though. It’s not a matter of providing the real or underlying meaning… It wouldn’t be a commentary either… a new way of thinking about surveillance, including self-surveillance…

So Royle, theorist now novelist, who for the rest of this review will be referred to as the author, makes himself a major part of his work. As himself. As the author. As an idea. Through the fictional character of Stephen Osmer, the author has fun with his own success:

…not long ago published his tenth book of literary criticism, variously praised as ‘extraordinary’, ‘fascinating’ and exuberant’; as a ‘book that shows the way forward for literary studies’. I should straight away add that these accolades are, as so often, grossly exaggerated’.

He also plays with the idea of fact and fiction, for example by the inclusion of a sex scene that could be seen as an admission of something… interesting, if not for this:

He could think, at times, of no better way of describing it than that he was ‘living in the pages of a novel’.

It is through this scene and those related to it that are included later, that Royle looks back on his fictional Stephen Osmer, his own critic, his fiction-real-life troll, and looks at the idea of an author’s reaction to reactions of their work. It’s exaggerated for effect – both literal effect and in order to explain the literary concepts the author is going for – but achieves the whole looking-at-literature-and-the-theory-and-everything-surrounding-it that he’s going for. (On this note, which might be considered a spoiler but which in the circumstances seems appropriate to include, is the author’s rather boldly killing off his own self for both fictional hilarity and as another look at the nature of writing.)

In view of the absolute fiction of the novel – the story of Silas and his wife – this comes to an abrupt halt about two thirds of the way through. If you were particularly enjoying it for its fiction you may be disappointed but the halt does fit neatly alongside – same spoiler as above incoming – the occurrence of the author’s fictional death.

It comes to a halt so that the author can move on to something else – prioritising the ‘birdwatching’ aspect of the book which up to now has been prevalent but somewhat obscured. This section of the book is composed of a series of chapters labelled ‘Hide X’ (where X corresponds to its number in the proceedings). In these sections the author analyses the word and concept of ‘bird’ and ‘birdwatching’, looking meticulously at a vast variety of meanings and possibilities. Could some of it be considered over-thinking? Most definitely, but that appears to be part of the point. Illustrated by artist Natalia Gasson’s beautiful drawings, it effectively provides you with a guide to ideas, which just happens to involve information about said bird hides, different species, and habitations as well as birds in various mediums – Du Maurier and Hitchcock; Thomas Hardy; ornithologists; battery hens; the military and the relationship with novelist Nicholas Royle’s work; Twitter.

Included in this is the drip-by-drip explanation of what the author was looking to achieve some chapters back. It’s not written as such; it’s more a series of ‘ah ha!’ moments you will have – unless, perhaps, you have a good knowledge of birds, this is the time when you find out that some of the things you thought were included just for fun were in fact a big part of the literary exploration. This is where the genius of the work really shines, the superb summit of all the other summits so far experienced.

The book is mostly written in the third person, and the narrative looks at things both from a regular point of past view and a retelling of events long gone. As part of the studious, analytical, process, the author gives a nod to Dickens, and there afterwards you find yourself reading reams of streams of consciousness which, as with everything else, is for a specific reason.

To review this book is only to add to all of what has been discussed, to be meta in one’s own right; to use a word preferred by Stephen Osmer, it’s almost ‘absurd’, effectively tacking something onto the end of the book, becoming a tertiary source – a real life Stephen Osmer, just without the vitriol.

This is a book that will bring delight to anyone who likes the idea of a novel in a novel in a novel, studying the already studied, the extremely experimental. In terms of attention required it’s incredibly needy – not one for bedtime reading, and desirous of a certain mood.

An English Guide To Birdwatching is a fantastic work of literary fiction, non-fiction, and academia, breaking boundaries and fourth walls to become something unique and highly enjoyable, particularly on a literary level.

I received this book for review.

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Barbara Comyns – Our Spoons Came From Woolworths

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A long time before you could buy Britney’s latest single for £3.99.

Publisher: Virago (Little Brown)
Pages: 196
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-844-08927-7
First Published: 1950
Date Reviewed: 28th March 2015
Rating: 5/5

Sophia marries Charles; neither family is happy about it. The couple lives on the poverty line; Sophia becomes a model for art students, Charles tries to make something of his artwork. They aren’t well matched and the conflicts are worsened by Charles’s outspoken relatives.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a mostly-autobiographical book about the hard years of a young woman.

It is quite difficult not to look at the way in which this book relates to Comyns herself; the way it’s written suggests it was a therapeutic exercise. It is a long tale told in a short time, spanning several years in 196 pages.

The writing – mainly the grammar – isn’t particularly good, however there is the sense that this is part of the problem the heroine suffers. It’s not that she’s uneducated, rather the writing is a subtle addition to what is actually said. Our heroine is weak, a doormat if you will, but does not really realise it. She takes a lot of flack that women, even in her time, would not have put up with. We are never given a direct reason, but one can assume her wish for a nice life and the death of her parents has much to do with it. The prose reads as though hurried, as though if she doesn’t write it all quickly everything will be forgotten.

Sophia’s problem is her husband, Charles. He blames her when she falls pregnant (her knowledge of contraception was non-existent at the time), he lives his own life, expects her to do everything he says, and his family only add to it. The book provides an incredibly damning portrait of a manipulative, highly selfish person, and at times other people.

So this is by and large a sad story, the cruelty is heartbreaking, but Comyns has the odd laugh. Her jokes are jibes at silly social ideas and customs, of local cultural issues. Because they are in keeping with the written style, they end up sounding somewhat innocent even when they aren’t.

The biggest social issue, then, is of the changing domestic situation of the time. Sophia works. She earns more than Charles ever will and this is simply not correct according to Charles and his family. What Charles wants he should get and so this is as much an issue of adults spoiled as children as it is a married couple not seeing eye to eye. Any children Sophia has will be spoiled only if it suits those looking after them. And as Sophia comes to find, Charles is far from unique.

Poverty is a close second. Charles uses up a lot of money but they would be poor anyway. Comyns shows how hospitals could be awkward for the poor even if they had support. Sophia gives birth and from her story emerges a lack of communication. Perhaps Sophia lacks knowledge, but it’s more likely those in charge simply didn’t bother trying to explain to her what was happening, why they were doing what they did. (The book is told from Sophia’s perspective.) There is a marked difference between this and a later hospital stay during which the character has more money.

What’s interesting about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is that the story isn’t particularly, well, interesting, but the book manages to utterly captivate. There isn’t even much of an ending; there’s no climax, just happier times. It’s the story of a woman who is poor, has some luck, but lives an average life overall. You’ll learn a lot from this book – it’s so far away from our present day.

This is a book that makes you get involved. It doesn’t ask you to cheer happiness or emphasise with sadness, but it does pull you in and whilst the author may have planned this – who knows? – the character seems oblivious to the effect.

We can’t know why Sophia wrote her book but we can guess why Comyns did, and she succeeds in all she sets out to do. Woolworths may no longer be around but Sophia’s spoons remain and in that fact lies an excellent book.

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Lorna Byrne – Angels In My Hair

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Lorna Byrne is what many people would call a modern day mystic. She claims that she can see and talk to angels, spirits, and on a few occasions, God. She waited years before writing her book, not wishing for any publicity or fame and only decided to write when instructed to by her angels. The price of promoting angelic presence has come at a cost, she’s no longer able to meet those who want her help.

Publisher: Arrow Books (Random House)
Pages: 325
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-50574-7
First Published: 2008
Date Reviewed: 31st August 2009
Rating: 3.5/5

Angels In My Hair has received most of it’s coverage in print and through television interviews (the usual ones where the presenters subtly interrogate their guest), little has been done to promote the book in the shops themselves. Its little publicity matches Byrne’s wishes for her not to be fawned over as she has said herself that she’s simply a person, a normal human who just happens to see angels.

The book is autobiographical with the focus being on Byrne’s first-hand experiences of angels. Everything she mentions is related back to them or what they have taught her and is evaluated against what religion teaches us. Beginning with a few experiences as a baby and ending just after the death of her husband, Byrne concludes with the statement that we are all angels. Byrne has been seeing angels since she was a baby and says that everyone can see angels at that age, it’s just that as we get older we are told that what we see isn’t real, much like the idea that babies don’t drown so easily as after they’ve been taught to be afraid of deep water.

Something evident within the first few pages is that Byrne isn’t a gifted storyteller, her sentence structure isn’t the best and she isn’t at all eloquent – but whether or not you’ll find this distracting depends on your outlook. If you’re reading the book with the aim of criticising and dismissing the possibility of angels then you’ll most likely be taking the book back to the shop. If you’re open-minded or share Byrne’s belief in angels then you’re more likely to see Byrne’s inability as something that gives further evidence of their existence. If you think about other books of the same genre and the multitude of self-help publications one thing that binds them all is the idea that they’ve all been edited to perfection. The fact that Byrne’s book isn’t promotes the thought that, as she says, she doesn’t want money, she simply wants the message out there. Her book is written in her own words and her lack of education is prominent throughout.

Difficult to comprehend is Byrne’s seeming lack of religious information. It’s not until the end of the book that she learns that the angel Michael is Archangel Michael and nor does she seem to understand many of the aspects she talks about that the average reader, assuming they know at least a little about religion, will acknowledge instantly. That Byrne also states she has no interest in politics is very off-putting as one would hope that someone such as herself would keep up to date with the news. Therein must lie proof of her statement that she is just an ordinary person and that it’s only because of other’s lack of faith that she needs to bring the message of God to the world.

What does become a real problem is the overall structure of the book. It reads how no book should, in a way that is easiest described as “and then… and then… and then…” Practically every paragraph holds the story of another angelic event so that no matter how miraculous the stories the reader can feel bogged down and the events become not only muddled but sadly boring. Byrne makes use of the same introductions and although her repetition of certain moral concepts is admirable (you can see that she means to introduce and then back up her claims) it generally means that her conclusions are underwhelming. The ending of the book is lovely but the last sentence sites the start of a conclusion that needed to be further explained whether through reiteration or a new concept.

Naturally Angels In My Hair will appeal to the believers who’ll find in it more reason to keep hold of their faith. It is unlikely to appeal to others however will be suitable for someone after the information for general interest purposes. The most negative point is sadly the real-life spin off: Byrne will now be at the hands of her agents and unable to carry on her task away from the spotlight.

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