Michael Stewart – King Crow (Bluemoose Books, 2020)
The swift cannot touch the ground. To do so means death.
The swift has evolved wings efficient enough to outmanoeuvre any bird of prey while also strong enough to carry these tiny birds on annual migrations to and from Africa. The one thing they can’t do is take off from standing. They must drop; from a tree, a cliff, or a towerblock.
Their entire lives are lived under momentum.
Michael Stewart’s new novel, King Crow, is a study in momentum. Cooper is sixteen-year-old Salford lad with an alcoholic mum and a dad who left a long time ago. He has no role models, no direction. Only an obsession with birds.
The fact above, about the swift, is one of Cooper’s. He tells us about gulls (NOT “sea”gulls), wrens, a variety of sparrows and hornbills, and, the greatest obsession of them all, the raven.
The raven is hunted by farmers. It is a scavenger, like a vulture, but it is not against helping nature along its way by pushing the occasional sheep off a mountain. This is more than morally justified, Cooper tells us. In fact, it is only common sense. He longs to see a raven in the wild.
Cooper’s life, shuffled between tower block and comp school, is enclosed, restless; his own cage. Only when he meets the braver, suaver, and potentially gang-affiliated Ashley, does Cooper finally make his leap into the unknown and fly loose.
The narrative soon gains a terrific momentum. We leap from Salford to London to Helvellyn by way of Kendal, then up to Carlisle. Danger follows, they’ve pissed off some gangsters, while love blossoms and, always around the next corner, the wild ravens await.
Stewart does an excellent job depicting life on the estates of Greater Manchester. His tone is perfect: heartbreaking stories accompanied by a shrug. He captures the Mancunian/Salfordian accent with a level of naturalism that makes the switch from a rich inner life to inarticulate speech both believable and meaningful.
After all, as Cooper reminds us, people take the piss if you say long words out loud; but they can’t stop you thinking them.
The novel becomes less naturalistic as it moves out of these well-known stomping grounds and, as they reach the Lakes, Stewart paints with a more impressionist palette. This works well as, for our unreliable narrator, we come to see the Lakes as a kind of liminal, fantastical place. A place where ravens fly free.
The only part of the novel that didn’t work for me was the ending – it being a too-close borrowing from another well-known novel about two violent men.
That is not enough to unrecommend this novel, however. The narrative carries a weight of momentum like a swift leaping between tower blocks, while Cooper, the ornithologically-obsessed outcast, is a captivating character who is highly memorable and sympathetic.
The novel, like a kingfisher, is both compact and colourful; a rare treat for wanderers in the wilds of literature.