The Woodcock

Written by Richard Smyth
Review by Marilyn Pemberton

Gravely, east coast of England, 1920s. Harriet and Jon have been happily married for two years. He is a naturalist who makes a living from writing articles on birds, shore life and “too many damn invertebrates,” while she keeps house and tolerates her husband’s passion, all too evident in the jars of pickled specimens that fill the workroom. Their simple life is interrupted by the visit of Jon’s close friend David, a novelist and a womaniser, and by the arrival in their small town of the American Maurice Shakes and his two red-haired daughters, Cordelia and Eleanor. Shakes has a dream and the money and intention to build it: a pleasure-ground and a pier that will go half a mile out to sea.

This, however, isn’t a David and Goliath story; the building of Shakes’s dream is almost, but not quite, an irrelevance. This is rather a tale of human nature, of temptation, secrets and the cost of pleasure. The story is told in alternate chapters in the first person by Harriet and Jon, each speaking in their own inimitable voice with honesty, pragmatism and humour. Harriet is particularly engaging, with her down-to-earth attitude towards her husband, her faith and ultimately to her mission. Jon’s love of the landscape, the flora, and the fauna is manifest in every word, and the sounds and smells waft off the page and totally captivate the reader. There are interesting little snippets of information about birds in particular; that woodcock often fall dead to the ground, exhausted from their migratory flight, is particularly poignant.

This is a beautiful, beautiful book that mesmerised and transported me; I would quite happily have read about the lives of Harriet and Jon forever. Highly recommended.