May Book of the Month: An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle


May’s book of the month is a story of literary theft, adultery and ambition; a unique take on the state of the nation novel. An English Guide to Birdwatching combines a vivid and often hilarious send-up of the intelligentsia with strong political, ecological and moral conscience.

Published by Myriad, An English Guide to Birdwatching is at turns a metafictional romp and a deeply touching evocation of the problems facing the modern world. The central characters – recently retired funeral directors Silas and Ethel Woodlock; young man of letters Stephen Osmer and his beautiful and brilliant girlfriend Lily Lynch – between them provide ample opportunity to dissect various facets of contemporary British society. The novel weaves together seemingly incongruent strands of plot into a surprising climax that is as madcap as it is shocking.

Whilst Ethel and Silas relocate from London to the (supposedly) more peaceful coast, encountering amidst the mundanity of their retirement a horde of cacophonous herring gulls, Stephen composes polemics on the banking crisis and the deplorable state of English literary culture and Lily embarks upon a public art project about creative intention… and begins an affair. Silas surprises himself by writing a short story, ‘Gulls’, which he loses at the pub. Several months later the story turns up in an anthology of uncanny stories about birds…

The author Nicholas Royle, a professor of English at the University of Sussex, also appears as a character in the book, accompanied by his real-life namesake and fellow author the-other-Nicholas-Royle. Together they become the focus of Stephen’s diatribe against contemporary English literature, whilst Silas also seeks out Royle regarding his short story. In its focus on birds, climate change, the banking crisis, social justice and human migration, it is intensely relevant to wider political concerns.

An English Guide to Birdwatching is a truly exceptional literary novel. Full of surprises – from the beautiful illustrations by Natalia Gasson, a cameo by Russell Brand, to the blend of scabrous gossip, lyrical prose and beautiful nature writing – it is a must read for fans of Ali Smith, Geoff Dyer and Jonathan Coe. With an endorsement from Robert McFarlane – a curiously compelling investigation of the nature of writing and the writing of nature” – it also places itself firmly in the camp of personally rich nature writing along the lines of Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, 2014). It is certain to be one of the most talked about books of the summer, if not the year.

  • Bill Godber

An English Guide to Birdwatching is published on 25 May by Myriad Editions (£9.99, paperback, 320pp, 9781908434944)

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