An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass
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|An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass|
|Category: Short Stories|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: An unusual mixture of historical, contemporary and dystopian short stories. A number of the first-person narratives feel vague, though there are some universal sentiments.|
|Buy? No||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 192||Date: July 2015|
|Publisher: JM Originals|
The title story, which appears first, is exactly what it says on the tin: one hunter's story of travelling to remote islands to take part in massive culls of great auks, until they were simply gone. It's always hard to believe that species that once numbered in their millions, such as the passenger pigeon, could go extinct so quickly, but when you read about the brutal slaughter tactics here – swinging clubs and boiling birds alive – you can see how a flightless bird was a sitting target. The narrator makes no real attempt to defend himself: the birds were there for the taking; that was that. Still, he regrets their extinction, because 'in any loss you can see a shadow of the way that you will be lost yourself.' (Those interested in the great auk's extinction may also want to read the 2013 novel The Collector of Lost Things by Jeremy Page.)
Birds return in another historical story, 'The Lonesome Southern Trials of Knut the Whaler.' Knut Knutsson, performing a burial at sea for the captain he will succeed, is watched by a penguin whose calls seem to 'deliberately parody the funeral procession.' A third piece of historical fiction, 'Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague,' has a sixteenth-century doctor wandering Europe in disillusionment. Aside from these, the only third-person tale is 'The Comfort of the Dead,' one of a few stand-outs. Here magic realism confronts staid reality when David is visited by the ghosts of dead acquaintances. Over decades, the hallucinations turn him inward – 'what had once seemed like timidity seemed now like common sense.'
Of the rest, my favourites are 'Scropton, Sudbury, Marchington, Uttoxeter,' in which the narrator goes back to his parents' grocery store as an adult, hoping for absolution after years of looking down on their profession; and 'Dolphin,' in which a nine-year-old girl whose parents are on the verge of divorce gets trapped in an aquarium after a dolphin hurls itself out of the water. Hearing a shot, she knows her childhood is over, in more ways than one. (Readers who find themselves intrigued by the child narrator and the peculiar setting must seek out Aquarium, the latest novel by David Vann.)
Of the 12 stories, the remaining six rather blend into one. They are all strangely vague interior monologues. With little external action and the narrators never firmly identified, it is hard to get a handle on what is actually going on in them. The unnamed characters ponder time travel, imagine themselves into other careers, try to find motivation for work in the midst of romantic malaise, and – in a couple of short dystopian narratives – make the best of a diminished life ('all of us think ourselves the last solid spot in shifting ground').
Although I thought this half of the collection was mostly unmemorable, I appreciated a few universal sentiments: the desire to be 'no longer an appendix but the driver of the plot' and especially the childish belief that adulthood would be a 'miraculous gnosis, the understanding of everything from carpentry to tax-forms to how to treat fleas in cats, and all uncertainty and self-doubt would be cast out'.
Unfortunately, when I reached the end of the book, I didn't feel that I'd read a unified collection, just a set of unrelated stories. The Shore, Sara Taylor's Baileys Prize-longlisted book of linked stories, is a better example of how to blend historical fiction, contemporary narratives and dystopian fantasy into one coherent book. Still, the flashes of creativity and emotional acuity tell me that Greengrass could be a talent to watch in the future. When she picks one genre (but which will it be?) and sticks with it for the length of a whole book, she should have the time and space for the deep characterisations I thought were missing here.
By the by, you can't beat this book's title, can you? A number of the individual story titles are fantastic, too. I must also mention that this volume has been beautifully produced and is one of the first offerings from JM Originals, a new list by John Murray – their motto is 'New Writing from Britain's Oldest Publisher.' You'll want to keep an eye out for others in the series.
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You can read more book reviews or buy An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass at Amazon.com.
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