Book review: ‘King Crow’ by Michael Stewart
by William Thirsk-Gaskill
182 pp, paperback.
Published by Bluemoose Books. ISBN 978-0-956687609
My partner, Jane, picked up a copy of this novel, signed by the author, and, frowning, began to read. After about fifteen minutes, she looked up and asked me, ‘Does it go on about chuffing birds all the way through?’ Yes, Jane. It does indeed go on about chuffing birds nearly all the way through. Most of the chapters are short, and every one is named after a kind of bird.
The main narrative of ‘King Crow’ is in the present tense and the first person – my favourite narrative mode.
The main character is a teenager called Paul Cooper who lives in Salford. He has no friends, a history of moving from one school to another, and seems in some way detached from reality. He filters all his observations and experiences through a series of metaphors based on his knowledge of ornithology. The story is concerned with what happens when Paul unexpectedly makes a friend called Ashley, and the two of them get into trouble with a criminal gang and decide to flee to the Lake District. On the journey, Paul looks forward to seeing ravens in the wild for the first time.
It would be trite and inappropriate to try to compare this book to ‘A Kestrel For A Knave’ (or ‘Kes’ as people insist on calling it since the film adaptation was made). In AKFAK, the protagonist actually owns a bird, and that is the only bird he is interested in. In ‘King Crow’, the protagonist is only interested in birds in the wild, and is knowledgeable about birds generally. Both protagonists are adolescent males from northern, working-class backgrounds but, beyond that, they are as different as two characters could be. Were they ever to meet, they would definitely dislike each other. All the dialogue in ‘King Crow’ is written in standard English rather than dialect – a wise decision. Barry Hines has said in later editions of AKFAK that he wishes he had written the whole dialogue in both the novel and the screenplay in standard English and left it to the reader to translate.
Another feature of the dialogue and one which I cannot remember seeing in any other novel is that there are no quotation marks. Each speaker’s words are introduced by a long dash. This was a deliberate device to allow Paul Cooper’s internal monologue to blend into the dialogue and I think it works: it does not make the narrative difficult to follow.
I found Paul Cooper to be a very likeable and believable narrator. I sympathise with his detachment and with his passion for accumulating what most other people would regard as “useless” information. He is opinionated and unsentimental, and speculates to himself on a wide range of subjects, from a hypothetical fight between Disney and Warner Brothers cartoon characters, to the fate of the giant panda. It was the unfolding of Paul’s character and his broken relationship with the real world that drove me to want to finish the book. Michael Stewart knows how to create suspense and he also knows how to write a resolution which is satisfying and believable to a contemporary readership. The flight to the Lake District is in no way an attempt to resort to flowery descriptions of setting instead of developing the characters and advancing the plot.
David Peace chose ‘King Crow’ as the work by an emerging writer to have the first three chapters included at the end of the World Book Night edition of ‘The Damned United’. Since then, the Kindle edition of ‘King Crow’ has reached No 38 in the download charts. It also won the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ prize, for which the author was awarded a Guardian mug which took an inordinately long time to arrive.
I am currently taking part in a reading tour to promote a poetry anthology of which Michael Stewart is the editor, and in which some of my work appears (‘A Complicated Way Of Being Ignored’, published by Grist). This has been a vivid, arduous and emotional experience, with some late nights, long taxi rides, one epileptic fit, and some truly execrable and embarrassing “read-round” poetry from audiences.
He has been working on his second novel for some time. I have no idea what it is about, but I hope he finishes it soon.
My collective name for my partner, Jane, and stepson, Jared, is The Jays: as Michael Stewart would say, “the most colourful of the corvids”. Even they are like chuffing birds.