An English Guide to Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle — never a gull moment

In his 2010 debut novel Quilt, Nicholas Royle lambasted the literary world, railing against the “original, brilliant” novel that is garlanded with praise and prizes “so long as it passes through without making any real trouble in and with language.” Quilt was ostensibly about the death of the author’s father, but ended up a dense, sometimes impenetrable meditation on the failure of language to capture meaning. The book spiralled off on bizarre divagations, both linguistic — it’s a novel full of puns, parapraxes and word games — and thematic — the author, in his post-bereavement sorrow, becomes obsessed with fish, specifically rays.

Ornithologists who buy Royle’s new novel, An English Guide to Birdwatching, may be disappointed. Birds, gulls in particular, do appear in this gloriously bonkers tale, but they’re largely symbolic, part of the complex collage of images and associations that make this book as fascinating and flummoxing as its predecessor. This is a novel operating at the outer edges of the form, deep in the avant-garde. If you like that kind of thing (which I do), then there’s much to admire here.

The novel opens in Seaford, an East Sussex town of golf-playing septuagenarians and steepling cliffs. The narrative is initially shared by Silas and Ethel Woodlock, their stolidly Dickensian name reflected in the workmanlike prose that the couple employ. Royle moves between the couple’s perspect­ives fluidly, enjoying the rhythms of their everyday language, the way Silas uses high-flown words like “repast” and “enunciated” alongside clunking clichés. It’s the same voice as that used in a short story, “Gulls”, which is reproduced halfway through the novel and which we discover (at least we think — everything in the novel has a not uncomplicated relationship with reality) that Silas wrote after attending a creative writing course. Royle appears to have stolen the story and published it under his own name. Silas, understandably, is peeved.

Intercut with this narrative are chapters from the short life of Stephen Osmer. We first meet him when he is dying — both the suddenness of the revelation and the lustrous prose in which it is rendered informing the reader that we are in new territory, a different linguistic world. Osmer is killed by “an access of pleasure . . . He skipped off his seat like the carriage on an old typewriter at the end of a line.” Then, in flashback, we move through Osmer’s recent life, read essays in which he slates the work of Nicholas Royle, follow him to a strange garden party at Royle’s house. Slowly we learn of the series of small catastrophes that led him towards his early end.

The final section of the book consists of a series of “Hides”, seemingly a work-in-progress by “Nicholas Royle” — the novel piles metafiction on metafiction until it feels like every name and noun needs quotation marks around it. Each “Hide” employs the image of…

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