Fiction – paperback; Nightjar Press; 15 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
In a previous life, as the editor of an avian magazine, I was very much immersed in the symbolism and mythology associated with birds. In all kinds of cultures, both East and West, particular bird species are feared or venerated, despised or admired. Some are linked to witchcraft and medicine, the weather and the seasons, birth and death.
I find the subject endlessly fascinating, because there are just so many superstitions and legends, some of which are contradictory, in the bird world. Which probably explains why I very much enjoyed Mark Valentine’s short story A Revelation of Cormorants.
In this story, the central character, William Utter, is working on a book entitled A Flock of Myths: the Legends, Lore and Literature of the Birds of Britain. He has rented a small cottage on the coast of Galloway, Scotland, and is busy compiling all the facts he has gleaned and researched into alphabetical order. He is only up to the letter ‘C’ but is already feeling bored by his work and longs “for the time when he would have reached whatever bird it was that began with ‘Z’. Zanzibar finch?”
To get “away from the study lamp” he decides to go for a walk to learn about the local bird-life, and it is while watching a flight of cormorants (that is the correct collective term, according to this wonderful resource) that Utter finds himself in a spot of difficulty, with the tide coming in and nothing but a tall cliff to aid his escape.
There is drama in the story, heart-thumpingly so, I might say, but there is beauty too, especially in the evocative descriptions of the coastline and seabirds Utter watches. But what I most loved was the rich use of language, full of bird metaphors and similes — Utter describes the monotony of his work “as if he were a tame bird being fed by hand”; he clutches his raincoat close to him “so that the flaps did not rise in the wind like fawn wings and carry him soaring off the cliff-top”; he describes his position on a cliff-top as an “exposed perch”.
That Utter is watching cormorants when his predicament occurs is particularly telling. Folklore ascribes these birds all kinds of evil qualities, including gluttony and satanism.
A Revelation of Cormorants is the perfect example of how a short story can deliver a powerful message in a beautiful way, in this case using birds as a metaphor for finding freedom and escaping our mundane lives.
Note that the book’s format is similar to a pamphlet, but it is presented on high-quality paper, stapled down the middle, with an attractive gloss cover. A limited edition of just 200 numbered copies has been produced. You can find out more via the publisher’s official website.