An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It
“ I was nine the summer my father took me to the aquarium to see the dolphins, and my parents’ marriage was drawing towards its inevitable conclusions – although I supposed it wouldn’t have seemed inevitable then, or at least to them,” writes Jessie Greengrass in Dolphin, one of a dozen short stories in An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, a collection suffused with isolation and memory but, and critically, a collection that is wrought by a brilliant and original stylist, not something I thought I would have the pleasure of admitting anytime soon.
I guess a review should be a window into the soul of a new work, followed by a resume of the good, the bad and the ugly, as if the noble ark of the writer has become the disassembled detritus of the reviewer, so that, logically, I can tell you what lurks behind The Lonesome Southern Trials of Knut the Whaler, or Theophrastus and the Dancing Plague, and wax lyrically, in a final flourish, about the merits of Dolphin or The Comfort of the Dead, but I won’t.
Unusually, for me, with a new collection of stories, I found myself returning again and again to a particular passage, or several pages, because I felt I had missed something as I surfed gladly on the cusp of the author’s tightly pared and spun momentum, my attention to narrative details occasionally skewered as I took a step back from the action, or the passage of time, to admire her craft, her pyramids of words and tone and mood and deductions which smack with the force of a pane of glass halting a hawk in full flight.
Each story is like walking from the departure lounge of an airport in a new country: the doors open, and the tableau of Greengrass is automatically estranged, coolly remote but psychologically familiar, like threading barefoot in the cold to the boot of a car, and forgetting why.
Scropton, Sudbury, Marchington, Uttoxeter, which anchors the collection, to me is the purest distillation of this collection’s strength, where formal style can mirror formal lives, where warmth is on a par with a song by The Smiths, where the ordinary has its own unhummable but musical pulse, where Sarthe’s existence precedes essence is turned on its head, and where prose of a measured economy is epically revelatory.
An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, is published under a new list by John Murray (Byron’s publisher), JM Originals, for fresh and distinctive writing. Whoever saved An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It from the slush pile, should be knighted in the New Year’s honours list.