Ornithology by Nicholas Royle

Reviewed by Annabel

Earlier this year, I reviewed the novel An English Guide to Birdwatching by an author named Nicholas Royle, and I interviewed its author too here.

Ornithology is not by the same Nicholas Royle – you need to know that. In fact, as the other Nicholas Royle told me, the two authors have a good friendship, have done many events together –  and have inserted each other into their novels.  It’s all very meta-fictional – indeed, apart from subjecting this NR to an unfortunate end in An English Guide to Birdwatching, one of this NR’s short stories, which appears in this collection, is also mentioned in the novel.

After reading the other NR’s book, I had searched out a copy of this NR’s most recent tome, titled First Novel, to read, but when offered a copy of his short stories all with a birdy theme I couldn’t resist; the novel would have to wait.

The sixteen stories that make up Ornithology have been selected from Royle’s output over a couple of decades together with a couple written for the collection. If I had to describe their overall style in one word, I’d choose ‘unsettling’.  The stories are weird, sinister and full of suggestion. They approach horror in the same way as those of Robert Aickman, master of the ‘strange’ story in the ’60s and ’70s (read more about his work here). Short stories are particularly suited to strangeness, whether they finish with a twist, reach an inevitable conclusion or evaporate into a mysterious enigma: the stories in Royle’s set do all of those.

The volume starts with a cracker. Unfollow is a story of a cat, taxidermy, and twitter stalking. The increasing sense of unease contrasts with the playfulness of the language in which the parallels between animal and human behaviour are explored.

The Nightingale, a tale of jealousy, revenge, and a computer screensaver, was another favourite.

Jane and I had been to our favourite restaurant on the city’s West Side, a little Korean place that somehow managed to position every table in a corner. It was good because it was the first place we went that was neither mine nor hers, nor was it Tessa’s – my ex.

In common with many horror stories, most of those in this volume are narrated in the first person. Royle’s narrators, perhaps inevitably male, tend to be dead-pan, which again adds to the strangeness of the stories.

The Kestrel and the Hawk, which is critiqued in the other NR’s novel, was slightly different, less overtly strange – comparing Prince William’s arrival at the air-base to swap his Hawk aircraft for a Sea King helicopter with a kestrel hovering over the dunes – until you start to wonder why the narrator was there!

All the stories are contemporary, and set in British cities, towns, countryside, except The Lure which moves us to Paris and features a blind man in the métro.

The predatory nature of wildlife and its translation into human behaviour in our modern technological world adds a surreal, distinctly un-Gothic feel to this set of stories; they are thoroughly modern.  Each of the tales embodies its avian inhabitant, be it through ornithological fact, or implied through its reverse anthropomorphism (or, as the other NR would say, ‘ornithomorphic’).

As with all short stories based around a theme, this collection is best enjoyed one or two at a time; an overload of avian metaphor might result in a case of Du Maurier’s The Birds!  I enjoyed them a lot, spreading my reading over a month or so.

This book is also a beautifully produced volume with attention in the detail. The French flaps are duck-egg blue. The stories are preceded by a drawing of sixteen different labelled eggs, then each egg features at the top of the relevant story. Well done to Cõnfingõ for designing this lovely edition.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and ought to read more short stories.

Nicholas Royle, Ornithology (Cõnfingõ, 2017). 978-0995596603, 193pp., paperback original.

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