An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle

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Review by Annabel

When first offered this book to review – I thought it was finally time to get around to reading one of Nicholas Royle’s novels, I’ve several on the shelves, notably First Novel. Then I opened this book, looked at the flyleaf and that book wasn’t listed. It was then that I realised that there are two authors named Nicholas Royle: one is an author of seven novels, and contributor/editor/publisher to many other outlets; the other is primarily a academician and author of several works of literary criticism and a well-received first novel Quilt. This novel is by the latter Nicholas Royle, and I’ll return to this confusion later.

Part One of the novel begins with Silas and Ethel Woodlock retiring from the family business in the London suburbs of Croydon to the Sussex seaside. Their son Ashley will take over, but Silas worries about him running it on his own. Being introduced to Ashley’s girlfriend Rhoda on the day of their move discombobulates Silas further. Ethel tries to be reassuring in their new home. Right from the very start, a playfulness with words is apparent: this part is titled ‘The Undertaking’ and Woodlock & Sons are undertakers.

Next, we meet the Osmers, Ben, Jane and their daughter Sarah at the occasion of their son Stephen’s funeral. Stephen was one of those brilliant young men, he’d excelled at university, everyone was sure he’d become a great author – yet five years into his job with the Gazette, he’d only published one essay, internally he seemed stymied in getting words out. He died as he typed the finishing words to his second essay – which will prove to be as controversial as his first, which had been written as a response and explanation of an event that happened a few years earlier in Manchester.

The third chapter is a transcript of Stephen’s first essay entitled ‘Double Whammy – the state of English literary culture today’.  In it, he describes what happened in Manchester… Two authors are in conversation at a literary event – both are called Nicholas Royle and they are speaking with jokingly about being mistaken for the other. Stephen was not amused and having read up about them shouted out:

You wouldn’t know powerful writing if it smacked you in the face with a brick.

Things are now getting doubly metafictional with both Royles now introduced into the text. Stephen’s essay goes on to dissect the writing of one of them, dismissing First Novel with considerable vitriol:

To write a novel about creative writing class, let alone about a novelist writing a novel about a novelist teaching creative writing, is to scrape a barrel I’d prefer not to situate my nose anywhere near.  

He goes on to pour equal scorn on a short story by that Nicholas Royle, entitled ‘The Kestrel and the Hawk’ (a real short story).  We’ll get to read the story later, but it is crucially important to subsequent events. The other Royle, the author of this book, doesn’t get off without criticism either, being dubbed ‘The Woodlouse’ by Stephen – an epithet which will allow us to distinguish between the two as the novel progresses.

I’m not going to comment more on the story of Part One of this book except to say that the Woodlouse lets his characters loose to run riot with hilarious yet tragic consequences.

Then we reach Part Two – The Hides. The book takes a different path through the next 17 chapters.

These ‘Hides’ are mostly non-fictional essays and short pieces about aspects of human nature but seen through the medium of ornithology and birds and naturally link back to comment on the story told in the first half. They include a discussion of Hitchcock’s film The Birds, a philosophical argument between protagonists only known by identifying letters about the definition of the word ‘hide’, hide etiquette for twitchers and so on. These hides also include many quotations and references to other works, from Dickens, Hardy and Mozart to books specifically about birds. There is also a short story in amongst them, and the final hide forms the epilogue to the book.

I haven’t read a book this playful with structure and words in a long time. Royle cleverly uses it to comment satirically on so many aspects of life today – from the banking crisis to the environment. The blurb describes it as ‘wordwatching’ – in Hide 9, Royle describes the ‘ornithomorphic’ nature of language, as opposed to our more usual term of anthropomorphic, but then goes on in Hide 10 to subvert things further by describing many avian idioms e.g., killing two birds with one stone, as ‘wordbotching’.

I loved the way I never knew what to expect next with this novel, if it can be called that! It’s a particularly brave author that ventures into metafiction, inserting themselves into their narrative – even braver to involve another in such an audacious way. Another joy reading the book were the illustrations throughout by Natalia Gasson.

I urge you to read the Q&A with Nicholas Royle in which he talks about the two Royles’ relationship and much more about this thought-provoking and compelling novel. An English Guide to Birdwatching is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

And finally, just to fuel the metafiction and turn it into reality – the other Nicholas Royle will publish a book of short stories soon called Ornithology – and – last week, the two authors could be found in conversation talking about both books, where else?  Manchester of course!

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors.

Nicholas Royle, An English Guide to Birdwatching (Myriad editions, 2017) ISBN 9781908434944, paperback original, 320 pages.

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