x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Counting crows

Hephzibah Anderson reviews the latest paperback books.

Crow Country Mark Cocker Vintage Dh64 "There is another of our British birds which is so abundant in almost all parts of our islands, and so well known to our people, and about which so much has been written, that it seems almost presumptuous to suppose we can say or write anything new." So apologised Lord Lilford in his 1895 Notes on the Birds of Northamptonshire and Neighbourhood. The quote finds its way into the opening of Mark Cocker's poetic tribute to that same bird, the crow, though he finds plenty new to say and write, and renders anything that we might already know in prose luminous enough that it almost takes flight. The beginning of his odyssey is deeply personal. We humans, he notes, are not hard-wired to migrate. When it comes to moving house, we do so in an ungainly fashion, taking months and even years to adjust to the change. In Cocker's case, he had merely transplanted his family ten miles from Norfolk's county capital, Norwich, out into the surrounding countryside, trading cramped convenience for a sprawling wilderness wreck. It turned out to be far more wrenching than any of them could have imagined, but the author took solace in his observation of birds coming home to roost. One evening, as night fell so thick that he could barely tell if his binoculars were focused, he watched a flock of rooks and jackdaws. These birds that he had never thought worthy of a second glance transformed themselves for him. "It was as if I were seeing them now for the first time," he writes. "The airborne gyre was both guiding star and immense question mark rotating in the night sky. I've been following ever since". In his quest to better understand the corvid family, he treks from Cornwall to Aberdeenshire, and roams as far afield as Spain, Turkey and Tunisia, considering jays, magpies, red-billed choughs, jackdaws, ravens and carrion crows, among others. Rooks emerge as the book's stars, with their gregariousness and glistening wings. "The rook's voice is dark, earthy, coarse, tuneless," he writes. "But in aggregate it possesses a beautiful and softly contoured evenness". Walk-on - or rather, fly-by - characters are captured just as vividly. Warblers, for instance, are "tiny sheaves of feathers wrapped around a thimbleful of blood". To illustrate the mighty tug of the avian homing instinct, he introduces the Leach's petrel, a long-tailed black-and-white creature that weighs about as much as a tomato, with a musty maritime scent and a song reminiscent of "a troll or goblin in LSD". Two of these birds were transported by aeroplane and car from their native Southern Canada to Southern England and released on a pebbly, wholly foreign beach. In less than a fortnight, they were back in their nest burrows. Cocker is an authoritative naturalist, and as he flits around the world, he questions everything from why rooks gather together to the impact of industrialised farming. Later, he pauses to consider the crow's place in our language as well as our landscape - why do we speak of crows' "parliaments" and "weddings", for example? Using science, intuition and a lively mix of literary sources from John Clare to Edward Thomas, he attempts to find answers, along the way rehabilitating the reputation of a bird that has traditionally been shot at by farmers and become associated with death and doom in the popular imagination. Occasionally, Cocker's writing becomes a little too rich, but it all adds up to an epic, elegiac prose poem that re-imagines the crow in all its swirling, chattering, mysterious beauty.

Ocean Sea Alessandro Baricco Canongate Dh58 A summer sloth sets into publication schedules during August, between the thudding arrival of July's blockbusting beach reads and September's gluttonous harvest of big-name literary fiction. But ravenous bookworms should be thankful, since this lull allows for the discovery of overlooked treasures. Ocean Sea is a perfect example. A beguiling novel that first appeared long before its author made his name with the internationally bestselling Silk, it has now been elegantly reissued, and tells of a disparate bunch of characters whose lives converge at the Almayer, a remote boarding house on an eerie, unnamed shore. The backdrop is "a place that almost does not exist", a place made only more vivid by its haziness. One by one, Alessandro Baricco introduces his cast. There's the lovelorn Professor Bartleboom, who yearns to know where the sea ends. A renowned painter named Plasson uses saltwater to capture the colour and movement of the waves, while Adams, a sailor with a dark secret, has lost something essential to its waters. They're augmented by an enigmatic seductress and a young beauty who is fatally ill, and as the novel progresses, they all become bound together by a complex web of fates and mystery. Capricious as the sea itself in tone, this hypnotic story exerts a powerful undertow, pulling you in and holding you rapt.

Clara's Tale Pierre Péju Vintage Dh58 It's the summer of 1963 and Paul, a 16-year-old French boy, is on a train speeding towards Germany and a small town in Bavaria. He's to spend several weeks there, improving his German and staying at the home of a penfriend named Thomas. Paul has absolutely nothing in common with Thomas, but is entranced by one of his classmates, Clara. While all the other girls wear their long blonde hair in braids, Clara's dark mane is cropped short. She dresses in black and is inseparable from her camera. The Second World War still feels menacingly close - as Paul puts it, "I was scarcely younger than the peace". Paul is the son of a resistance fighter killed in mysterious circumstances, and it turns out that Clara, the daughter of a doctor who served in the Wehrmacht, is also haunted by a tragedy that we slowly see emerge in flashback chapters. Meanwhile, Paul must return to France, but their paths will continue to cross in unexpected ways as their lives unfold, he becoming a sculptor and she a photographer.

Elegantly translated from the French by Euan Cameron, this powerful fable borrows dark fairy-tale motifs to illustrate the extent to which we're held in thrall to patterns established long before our birth.

The Point of Rescue Sophie Hannah Hodder Dh50 Sophie Hannah began her literary career as a poet, writing pithy, Wendy Cope-style verse that won her a loyal but tiny following. Then she turned her hand to psychological thrillers, and turned out to be very good indeed, spinning creepy tales filled with twists and turns and a gutsy, oddly compelling energy. This latest is no exception. It begins as Sally, a harried mother whose work for the Save Venice Foundation is frequently derailed by thoughts of Calpol and Barbie dolls, has a row in the street and then narrowly survives being run over by a bus, sensing that someone had elbowed her into the road. Bizarre as these occurrences are, Sally's day gets weirder still when she returns home. In between cooking dinner, dealing with her kids' tantrums and her over-anxious husband's questions about her fall, she glimpses a story on the news.

A six-year-old girl has been found murdered, supposedly by her mother who was lying dead at her side. Their names are Lucy and Geraldine Bretherick, which sends a chill through Sally, who's been having an affair with the girl's father and the woman's husband, Mark. Except that when a picture of Mark Bretherick appears on the screen, he is a man Sally has never seen before in her life.