Fiction – paperback; Pan Books; 295 pages; 2008.
Sally Hinchcliffe’s debut novel Out of a Clear Sky has already drawn comparisons to Barbara Vine, so I can’t claim to be original by stating the same. Yet the quiet build-up of tension and the psychological drama that plays out is hugely reminiscent of Ms Vine’s best work. It also has shades of Nicci French, mainly in its depiction of a single young woman on the run from a disturbed man.
And yet there’s something about Out of a Clear Sky that is wholly original.
The story is set in the world of bird-watching (or “twitching” as it is colloquially known) with each chapter headed by the name of a bird species — kingfisher, firecrest, wren — espousing on the theme. This continues with lovely descriptions of wild birds and the places in which they inhabit, giving the story a languid kind of beauty, almost a hymn to the natural world.
But belying this sense of calm is a tension that builds and builds, as the narrator Manda comes to terms with the realisation that a fellow birdwatcher, the mysterious and slightly spooky David, is observing her in much the same way as Manda observes the birds — closely and with much patience. Having just broken up with Gareth, her long-term boyfriend, Manda is already feeling pretty fragile, not helped by the lack of support shown by her small circle of friends who have seemingly abandoned her.
As the narrative progresses, and Manda shuts herself away by going on more solo birdwatching trips, we get glimpses of her troubled childhood in Africa and the inexplicable death of her mother. These flashbacks are seamlessly woven into the main storyline, so the reader is almost unaware of the subtle shifting backwards and forwards in time. But what you do begin to appreciate is that Manda has always been a victim and that history seems to be repeating itself. Will she find the energy and the will to keep on fighting, or will she succumb to a loner’s morbid fascination?
Despite a slightly weak circular plot (I guessed the major twist at the end long before I reached it), Out of a Clear Sky is a quietly thrilling read, and I’ll look forward to reading more by this talented writer in the future.