Bloomsbury £12.99, 276pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, By Magnus Mills
Friday 07 October 2011
Smew, Brambling, Garganey, Whimbrel, Shrike, Gallinule, Gadwall: for no obvious reason, all the characters in Magnus Mills's seventh novel are named after birds – mainly, but not exclusively, ducks, geese and other waterfowl. Apart from the names and the title there are no actual birds in the novel; the story is set in the Empire of Greater Fallowfields, which seems to represent a vision of England, with its higgledy-piggledy streets and Surveyor of the Imperial Works Dotterel's admission that "We don't make anything in this country. Not any more. We just carry out repairs." Once a mighty seafaring power, the Fallowfieldsmen now occupy a western seaboard, nursing memories of imperial glory and sustaining only the vaguest awareness of the mysterious lands that lie to the east.
Society is divided into noblemen, commoners and serfs. Just as there are no birds, nor are there any women, unless you count the dancing girls frequently on Sanderling's mind and supposedly providing entertainment behind closed doors for the patrons of the Maypole public house. The narrator's position as Principal Composer to the Imperial Court allows the reader a privileged insight into the workings of the cabinet, which meets regularly to do little more than call a register of names and find that His Exalted Highness, the Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields, is temporarily absent.
Assuming Godot-like status, the emperor issues decrees from unknown wherabouts that turn out to be pure invention on the part of scheming officers-of-state. The narrator, meanwhile, oversees rehearsals of the imperial orchestra, delegating responsibility for composing and conducting to principal violinist Greylag. In his spare time, the narrator visits Whimbrel, the Astronomer Royal who doesn't know the planets from the stars, nor Jupiter from Neptune. Together they use the observatory's telescope, once they have discovered it takes sixpence to make it work, to watch a sinister funnel-shaped column of smoke approaching from the east.
If this all sounds faintly whimsical, maybe that's fair. It's a quick and easy read, certainly enjoyable, charming, likeable and amusing, but with only occasional hints of a more interesting darkness that is never allowed to dominate. Tensions between different levels of society are not explored, just as the nightmarish potential of a life of exile in the industrialised City of Scoffers is never really exploited.
Mills has the imagination of Kafka, but his light comic touch, at least in his most recent novels and short stories, has a soothing, sanitising effect. The City of Scoffers, when we finally get there, is a wonderfully retro-futuristic vision of Hell: "Behind the station loomed tall buildings shrouded in vapour; factory hooters were blaring and smoke was rising from their immense chimneys; sparks flew inside cavernous steel sheds; beneath a gantry an iron girder descended steadily on a hook and chain; cables unwound from revolving drums".
But we get there too late and don't stay long enough. If only Mills would go easy on the whimsy and let the darkness prevail.
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