King Crow Paperback – 28 Jan 2011
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Paul is an obvious target for bullies then, and his saviour in this regard is Ashley O'Keefe. Good-looking, tough and charismatic, Ashley is everything that Paul isn't - but he's also a runner for a local criminal gang. A chain of events straight from a gritty urban thriller means that Paul and Ashley are soon driving a stolen car to Cumbria, where Paul's beloved ravens circle above Helvellyn and where matters are complicated by Becky, a middle-class raver who spurns streetwise Ashley for shy, awkward Paul. The catalytic effect that Becky has on Paul and Ashley's relationship and their foolish decision to accept hospitality from a former violent bank robber with a fondness for skunk, turn Paul's life upside-down.
Much of the book takes place in rural Cumbria, but the details of Paul's life in Salford, first introduced in the early chapters and recurring throughout in flashback as Paul recalls them, are exceptionally well-observed. The locations named in the book are all real and well-known to me, but it's not just the urban landscapes that are perfectly depicted: it's the harsh realities of life within them for those, like Paul, who have slipped through society's net.
Paul, who tells the story, frequently diverges from the narrative to give the reader a detailed ornithology lesson, and it becomes increasingly clear that his obsessive and wholly unsentimental interest in birds is his way of trying to maintain a thread of order through the chaos of his life. Also casually scattered throughout the story are incidental anecdotes about Paul's childhood. There was the time a couple tried to abduct him when he was lost at the park, for instance, and his friendship with a man who could have been either a rapist or a vigilante; there's the brief period he spent in care when his mother was sectioned, and the Christmas when he watched her cry uncontrollably through Dr Who while they ate a Christmas dinner of sausage rolls. A fine example of an unreliable narrator, Paul could easily have been a whiny, angst-ridden Holden Caulfield, but his remarkable lack of self-pity and his detached pragmatism make him far more interesting than that. I did see occasional echoes of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but King Crow is a much darker and more complicated book, and there are far fewer certainties in Paul's character.
I read King Crow in one sitting, turning the pages with increasing urgency. Bleak and unsettling at times, even disturbing, it's also oddly uplifting and often touching. If you read this book and think some of the plot seems a little improbable, or a few things don't seem to quite add up, stick with it: it's worth it, and suddenly everything will make an odd, bittersweet kind of sense.
King Crow is published by Blue Moose, an independent Arts Council-supported publisher based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, whose website states that the founders were 'tired of all the formulaic publishing that was on offer in the high street'. Certainly, there's not much that's formulaic about King Crow, and the novel has many hallmarks of a future cult classic - but equally, it fully deserves to become a bestseller.
I don't want to drop any spoilers in here but this is also a damn good story with a satisfying twist. Michael Stewart gives Cooper a believable voice, one that whilst sometimes desperate in its loneliness, is never prone to self pity and avoids the possible pitfall of relying too heavily on the bird angle and making the adolescent Cooper too off the wall to relate to. I was intrigued and touched by the narrative and as the plot threads come together the climax was unexpected until it unfolded and yet the clues had been skilfully woven in such a way that no reader could feel suddenly cheated.
I imagine that this title will build a steady and loyal fan base as time passes.
I not especially interested in birds. Although I appreciated the descriptive passages, they were lengthy and I found myself skimming them. The fantasy element was not my taste .
Whilst I don't wish to dismiss the book out of hand (I read it as a reading club exercise, therefore not my choice) I did find myself wondering just what audience he was aiming for . I didn't work for me.
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