by Richard Smyth
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Pub Date 01 Oct 2021 | Archive Date 12 Jul 2021
A Note From the Publisher
Richard Smyth won the Northern Writer's Award 2017.
'Beautifully written - I could almost taste the salt.' —Carys Bray, author of A Song for Issy Bradley
'A novel of shifting, silted landscapes and relationships laid bare, with quiet urgency The Woodcock reveals the complexities of desire, instinct and faith.' —Eley Williams, author of The Liar's Dictionary
'Through the salty prism of a small, northern English coastal town, Smyth has a naturalist's eye for detail, and turns it here upon human nature.' —Jon Dunn, author of Orchid Summer
Average rating from 11 members
This book immediately gave me vibes of Remarkable Creatures (Tracy Chevalier), with its fascination with the inhabitants of the British shoreline, tinged with the melancholia and confusion of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.
The Woodcock is set in the fictional coastal village of Gravely in northern England. The characters are well-drawn, with many little quirks giving you insight into who each person is. “Local limpet-botherer” Jon has to wait until his tea is just the right temperature before drinking it (ok, anyone that doesn’t is clearly a monster, I’m with Jon on this one). Wife Harriet goes through the motions of interwar housewifery while both Harriet and Jon, who thinks of them as “wife and husband”, know she can, in fact, do anything she sets her mind to. The dual narration demonstrates their insight into themselves and each other, although the story is heavily weighted in favour of Jon’s narrative – it’s definitely a masculine story rather than a feminine one.
The book is set after the Great War so everyone is slightly unsettled – everything has changed but they can’t quite work out yet how they should change, or could change, and how they all fit together after everything they’ve been through. Even Maurice Shakes, an American agent of change within the village, is himself feeling the effects of his new location on him, rather than the other way round.
The Woodcock simultaneously evokes the wide open spaces of the coast while telling an intensely personal story. It’s a thoughtful portrait of the place, the time, and the relationships, and if you love natural history this is a great read.
Thank you to NetGalley and Fairlight Books for the ARC.
In a small northern English coastal town soon after World War I, a nerdy young naturalist spends his days combing the shore and observing birds. His beautiful, locally born wife seems content with a housewife's routine life. Through their eyes, "The Woodcock" is a tale of love, lust, hubris, morality, and humanity, a tale that speedily takes off when a larger-than-life American whaler, together with his red-haired daughters, arrives in town planning to build the equivalent of Coney Island out into the sea. A brilliant nonfiction writer, with five books under his belt, Richard Smyth has taken to fiction with aplomb, displaying on every page the flair, economy, and eloquence needed to lift this story from the realm of period piece (I found myself recalling two recent movies, Ammonite and The Dig) into something magical. A naturalist himself, the author imbues the town and coastline with cinematic depth, and his portrayal of the extended cast of characters, local or transplanted, is as keen as that of the birdlife. An accelerating pace transported me, over two evenings, to a grand, unpredictable yet fitting climax, and over those two evenings, I had occasion to chuckle and gasp. Quite unlike anything else I've read this year, The Woodcock is an unmitigated delight.
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