Shiny Archive Reading List #1: Birds in Fiction

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Compiled by Annabel

In its ninth year, Shiny New Books has passed the 2000 mark in published posts. We thought it would be good to go back through our archives to create some thematic reading lists, and re-share some great old reviews with our readers.

Our reviewing team has covered many, many non-fiction books about birds over the years – you can discover them in our Ecology, Environment & Natural World Index. Birds are also a very powerful presence in many novels and short stories too, whether they be a physical presence, mere metaphor or just cover stars. Here is a selection for you; links to the full reviews are in the titles.

An English Guide to Birdwatching by the ‘Sussex’ Nicholas Royle, and Ornithology by the ‘Manchester’ Nicholas Royle

I’m considering these two books together as they are inextricably linked. There are two writers named Nicholas Royle. Both are academics, and their work is always getting confused, but thankfully this has led to friendship rather than enmity.

In Sussex Royle’s Birdwatching … an unfulfilled author publishes a damning critique of a real short story by Manchester Royle, with hilarious yet ultimately tragic consequences in its first half. The second half, in ‘hides’ rather than chapters, comprises non-fictional essays and short pieces about aspects of human nature but seen through the medium of ornithology and birds, and naturally links back to comment on the story told in the first half. It’s a very meta book, but great fun and full of wonderful wordplay.

Manchester Royle’s Ornithology is a collection of sixteen short stories, including the one referred to in Birdwatching. All are prefaced by lovely birds egg illustrations of the key species within. 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 1960s and 1970s (read more about him here). Short stories are particularly suited to strangeness, whether they finish with a twist, inevitable ending or mysterious enigma: Royle’s set do all of those in their contemporary settings. Annabel, 2017.

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan

Birds are a metaphor for migration in the first winner of the #Merky Books New Writer’s Prize which offers young, underrepresented, and unpublished writers the opportunity to win a publishing contract with Stormzy and Penguin Random House’s imprint #Merky Books.

Zayyan’s debut focuses on two generations of the same family whose stories span 75 years and two continents. The younger Sameer is a successful lawyer in London whose high-earning, high-flying career stems from the hard work and sacrifices that got him a grammar school education and a law degree from Cambridge.

In comparison, his grandfather Hasan’s story begins in 1945, where his business acumen and expertise have granted him much success as a second-generation Indian migrant in Uganda. As the novel progresses, however, we see the shine of both men’s success turn dull as the political and cultural landscapes in which they thrive begin to turn against them.

Zayyan’s debut takes bold steps in its difficult subject matter, intricate structure and balance between darkness and light. It is, at times, a difficult read. But it is also a joyous and necessary one. And that, perhaps, is its greatest achievement. Pete Freeth, 2021.

The Language of Birds by Jill Dawson

More metaphor in the title of this novel, based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair, but reimagined and told from the nanny’s perspective. Touchingly, Dawson has dedicated her novel to Sandra Rivett, the nanny who spent a scant ten weeks in the Lucan household. Readers of a certain age will remember the incessant, prurient coverage of her murder, and of Lucan’s subsequent disappearance. Dawson turns this coverage on its head, telling her story from Mandy’s perspective interwoven with her friend Rosy’s occasional reflections. Dawson reveals a society still deferring to and obsessed by its upper echelons who farm out the care of their children, seemingly incapable of looking after them themselves. Violence against women is a constant undercurrent, culminating in Mandy’s murder and the attack on the estranged wife. By telling the story from the nanny’s perspective, Dawson’s careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours her memory, tipping the balance away from a media obsessed with Lucan which reduced Sandra Rivett to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best. Susan Osborne, 2020.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

As a way of setting out a novel’s stall, the opening sentence of All the Birds, Singing works very well indeed:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.

From this, we can infer that the novel being introduced will be unsentimental about the harsh realities of its protagonist’s life; and full of smells and other sensations, often unpleasant ones. But then there’s that image of the steamed pudding, a seemingly incongruous reference to home comforts; a suggestion, perhaps, that even this life of blood and death has its positive points for the individual who’s living it.

That individual is Jake Whyte, a woman whom we first meet living on an island somewhere off the British coast, with no company but her dog and flock of sheep. We then step into Jake’s past in Australia, where we find her working on a sheep station, having clearly left somewhere in a hurry; when one of Jake’s colleagues threatens to reveal her secret unless she sleeps with him, she punches him hard enough to break his jaw – and that is the latest event we’ll see of Jake’s Australian life, because the rest of that narrative strand goes backwards chronologically. The two parallel narratives remain separate but nevertheless reflect and illuminate each other. The mystery of the flashbacks is, of course, how Jake got to where she ended up, and the nature of the secrets in her past. The ending takes a turn into an unexpected place, and for me it works perfectly – it shows how far Jake has come, balanced with a bitter note of irony. It puts the cap on another fine piece of work by Evie Wyld. David Hebblethwaite, 2014.

The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson

The Bird’s Nest (1954) is decades ahead of its time, being about dissociative identity disorder (also known as multiple personality disorder which wasn’t officially medically recognised until 1980). The title comes from a nursery rhyme:

Elizabeth, Beth, Betsy, and Bess
All went together to find a bird’s nest.
They found a bird’s nest with five eggs in it.
Each took one and left four in it.

The nursery rhyme trickery is, of course, that all four names are variants of ‘Elizabeth’, and thus refer to the same person.  Jackson – in her way – takes the domestic and distorts it. The novel starts with Elizabeth – reticent, uncharismatic, a little moody – who is experiencing headaches, insomnia, and occasional black-outs. With the help of Dr. Wright, it quickly becomes apparent that Elizabeth is only one personality amongst many – and the others become increasingly dominant. There is sweet, gentle Beth; feisty, selfish Betsy; airs-and-graces Bess. Much of the novel is given from the perspective of Dr. Wright, debating his dealings with these personas, and pondering how to bring them all together into one being. Other chapters are from the perspective of one of the four personalities – but towards the end of the novel these chop and change so quickly that it’s more or less a hotchpotch of different points of view. Simon Thomas, 2014.

Grief is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

It may seem perverse to reinterpret Emily Dickinson’s sweet words about hope into a reflection on bereavement in this novel’s title, but Max Porter’s exceptional debut tweaks its poetic forebears – chiefly Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and Ted Hughes’s Crow – to create an impressive hybrid response to sudden loss.

The novel is composed of three first-person voices: Dad, Boys (sometimes singular and sometimes plural) and Crow. The father and his two young sons are adrift in mourning; the boys’ mum died after an unspecified accident in their London flat. The three narratives resemble monologues in a play, with short lines often laid out on the page more like stanzas of a poem than prose paragraphs, blending poetry, dramatic monologues and prose to make a whole new language for the unspeakable.

Like Poe’s raven, Crow is both a real creature who blows into Dad’s life a few days after his wife’s death and a symbol – a larger-than-life representation of grief. ‘In the middle, yours truly. A smack of black plumage and a stench of death. Ta-daa!’ The most powerful sign of his recovery, however, is that Crow decides it’s time for him to go. The result is both a homage to Hughes and elegy for Porter’s own late father, with a particularly beautiful, triumphant ending. Rebecca Foster, 2015.

Piranesi by Susannah Clarke

Susannah Clarke’s 2021 Women’s Prize winning novel is full of birdlife, but it is her titular protagonist that uses one bird to date his diaries in an idiosyncratic style:

Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the South-Western Halls.

He lives in a seemingly infinite, Italianate, marble museum with an ocean enclosed inside: the basement is flooded and teeming with fish; the upper level is cold and full of clouds; the middle storey, subject to the ocean tides, is where Piranesi lives among the statues and birds. He has no recollection of how he arrived or got his name. He knows his environment backwards and is expert in the ocean’s tides. He also tends the bones of the dead, thirteen skeletons found in his travels. Piranesi writes with constant wonder about his world, both natural and material, including his favourite statues. He also has meetings with ‘the Other’, a smartly garbed man who brings essential supplies in return for information. When the Other warns Piranesi a sixteenth person will arrive who intends to destroy their friendship and life’s work, things soon spiral out of control.

This novel defies categorisation, containing aspects of history, fantasy, SF and nature writing before we arrive at the central mystery, which is a psychological thriller, but it’s often funny too. However, I defy anyone not to be sent off on flights of fancy set off by the richness of the writing found inside its covers. Annabel, 2020.

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

In 1941 Meridian ‘Meri’ Wallace wins a place at university in Chicago to study ornithology. She never thought she would fall for one of her lecturers, but she did. Alden Whetstone is a physicist and in 1943, he is picked to work on a top secret project in Santa Fe – The Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He wants them to get married, and for Meri to join him there. They marry and Meri’s supervisor advises her to finish her degree and doctorate, but she lets her heart rule her head and agrees to join Alden before completing her doctorate. But she doesn’t fit in with the other Los Alamos wives, so goes out on treks to observe birds freely in the wild, a metaphor for the women’s repressed yearnings to do their own thing. Years pass – but one day, when she’s now in her 40s, she meets Clay…

While the main story of the young woman giving up her own career for her husband’s, and then finding a lover is nothing new, Church’s novel was an engaging read. Meri is an interesting woman throughout her life and I was on her side all the way. Annabel, 2016

The Wonderful Adventure of Nils Holgersson by Selma Lagerlöf

A rare translated children’s classic from Sweden, The Wonderful Adventure of Nils Holgersson was written in 1906. Lagerlöf, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1909,  had been commissioned to write a geography textbook for schools, but struggled to come up with a structure for it. She had the inspiration to build a story around Swedish folklore and legends of the various provinces, and the story of Nils Holgersson who flies around the country on the back of a gander was born.

Being transformed into a miniature version of himself, Nils travels with the geese on their migration north from Skåne towards Lapland for the summer. He learns all about nature, the geography of the land, and how all the animals live together. Nils experiences all the joys and perils of being an honorary gosling, interfacing with all the different animals they meet on the way, having a moral journey as well as an educational one on the way. With its aspects of folklore and local legend built into the story and Lagerlöf’s appreciation of nature and landscape, I adored reading this novel now, but wish I had discovered it as a child. Annabel, 2016.

Happiness by Aminatta Forna

And to finish, a few bird-laden covers for you to click on to discover more. I do hope you enjoyed this ornithological tour!

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Annabel is co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors, and seems to have read a lot of avian fiction.

1 comment

  1. A lovely way to remind us of some great books we might have missed – thanks Annabel!!

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