Reviewed by Simon Marshall-Jones
Fiction in the short form, in the mainstream at least, has of recent times seen very lean returns – a state of affairs that this reviewer finds somewhat of a mystery. Apparently, according to the big publishing houses, short story collections just aren’t profitable: novels are the thing. However, there’s one area where the short form is very much alive and kicking, and which is where I rediscovered my love of this type of fiction – the independent press. Presses such as Ash-Tree, PS Publishing, and Gray Friar, to name just a few, regularly put out quality books of collections and anthologies, by writers who understand the inherent advantage of the shorter story over the novel. Telling a tale in less than 5000 words, for instance, takes skill and art; unnecessary fluffing out is completely anathema and compactness is absolutely paramount.
Manchester’s Nightjar Press specialises in publishing short stories, but in an even more condensed and concise form still – the chapbook. Nicholas Royle and John Oakey, publisher and designer at Nightjar respectively, issue superb quality, single story pamphlets (for want of a better word), and amounting to less than 20 pages in length. This is my first encounter with their books, and I have to say I am highly impressed.
Mystery and a hidden yearning are at the heart of Mark Valentine’s A Revelation of Cormorants, one of the latest Nightjar releases. William Utter has isolated himself in Galloway, after being commissioned to compile a book of pithy and apposite quotations concerning the myths, legends and literature surrounding the native birds of Britain. Indeed, the very place where he has sequestered himself, in a little whitewashed cottage on the coast, is itself haunted by those most inscrutable of sea-birds, cormorants. While engaged in his (faux) literary endeavours, he decides to head off to the shore to watch the sea-birds in their natural environment, at the suggestion of the cottage’s caretaker.
It may only be a short tale, but even within its eleven pages of story there are meditations on time and nature, and how the cormorants themselves appear to embody the deeper mysteries to be found there and in nature itself. It’s a journey of discovery, of revelation at the very point of crisis, and along the way explores the relationships between natural, geologic timelessness and the finite culture of mankind (as represented through the written word, spanning the lost scripts of ancient civilisations, and right on up to his own collating of the quotes of literary worthies). The tale itself is timeless, its only grounding being the location, and even then there’s no specificity as to where the action is unfurling. Neither do you get any sense of when it all takes place, although, for whatever reason, I kept imagining sometime from early to mid-twentieth century, mainly I think because there was a certain hint of an archaic timelessness threading itself through the language (entirely in keeping with the nature of the story). The tension between the meditations on the time that nature experiences and the timelessness of the story drives it along.
The language of the story is full of references to birds and flight, a symbol perhaps of an unacknowledged yearning to be free. Utter is a compiler, not a writer; a gatherer-together of other people’s insights. That’s a restriction right there; maybe there’s a part of him that wishes otherwise. Going to watch the cormorants dipping and diving over the sea is almost a declaration of independence from the confines of the cottage. It’s that action that marks the beginning of the journey for our erstwhile compiler/narrator, in both a physical and metaphysical sense. There are also constant allusions to the written word (not surprising, given Utter’s chosen profession), tied in to concepts of both the unimaginably long epochs of geological timescales and the relatively shorter ones of mankind’s impact on the world. A deeper thread runs through even this: the idea that nature is itself still an inscrutable mystery despite all our investigation of the world and its phenomena. The cormorant itself is symbolic of that; its black feathers concealing a malachite green tint on its body covering (only seen in certain lights), and its eyes being deeply and unreadably black, almost void-like. Perhaps, then, it’s only at the end, when the narrator is facing death and danger, that the mystery allows itself to be unfolded.
All this exploration of deep themes and ideas, crammed into just eleven pages of tale. THAT’S the art of the short story writer. Mark Valentine manages to condense quite broad and, in some ways, complex, concepts in just that space. Moreover, these are exposited as subtle subtexts, rather than overt ruminations. The ideas contained herein tickle the mind as you’re reading it and automatically trip convoys of thoughts. It almost invites the reader to meditate on what’s been written. There’s no dense questioning, just finely-wrought prose.
This, in other words, is writing of the highest order and all wrapped in a beautifully designed and executed production.