Book Review

Jackdaws by Neil Campbell

a return to prose and a whine about violence

I miss poetry. Already, one short story chapbook into the life beyond my massive poetry binge, I miss poetry. Maybe I leapt off the diving board of poetry in the wrong direction, maybe I should have deliberately headed towards land I knew was safe (THIS IS A LUDICROUSLY MIXED METAPHOR), as opposed to land that was unknown. One shouldn’t dive unless you know the water is deep, one shouldn’t go from reading many books in a literary form that one has a newfound love for to reading a book in a different form that you have avoided for a while due to fatigue without making sure that the leap from new joy to old-mixed-feeling comfort isn’t too hard.

JESUS CHRIST, what am I trying to say?

I haven’t read any fiction for a while. To protect my psychological interest in fiction, I should have made sure I read some fiction that I knew would be good.

There, wasn’t so hard, was it?

I suppose that is the difference between poetry and prose, isn’t it? The precision. And by that I mean good poetry and all prose. Bad poetry is always imprecise, while prose can be gorgeous and beautiful but imprecise, prose is used to tell stories, to weave worlds, to construct complex narratives and ideas that echo echo echo through the ether.

Jackdaws is another chapbook published by Nightjar Press, like Paymon’s Trio that I read a couple of months ago. Like that story, it is a piece of stylised prose with an unsatisfying ending, but for – essentially – the completely opposite reason. Paymon’s Trio was almost impressively anti-climactic, in that it was about some musicians who almost summon a demon by playing diabolical music, but they stop just in time. In Jackdaws, the piece turns from rather gentle pastoral description into – to my mind, unnecessary – murderous confession, with the piece so short that its twist, its plot, overshadows all else.

Jackdaws sits within a first person narrator, who narrates his experiences living in the countryside somewhere in rural England. Actually, even though it sounds made-up, I’m gonna Google some of the places. Turns out they are real, and the story is set in the Peak District, here:

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 13.49.55

Thanks, Google.

Right, so: The story is about six and a half pages long, so there isn’t much of it. It contains very detailed and specific descriptions of place, the place in the above map. There is a precision to the detail, in the naming of hills, the naming of roads and the descriptions of birds and landscape details that is – for me – a little laboured. The narrator is looking at things around him but is not looking at himself. This is a piece about weather, about rain and snow and heat, about the changing seasons, about how people interact with the landscape in which they live. There is not much menace, not until the final page, when it becomes clear that the narrator has murdered a child. This unnecessary – to coin a word – plotification of what is an otherwise pleasant, meandering, landscape portrait feels cheap. Campbell’s writing evokes a character very clearly, a man with an interest in facts and details, the kind of man who memorises road numbers and bird species, y’know, a loner, and – possibly – the kind of man who could be a child murderer. But, to me at least, unnecessary reliance on violence, on murder, on shock, is the kind of reason why I increasingly steer clear of fiction, especially of fiction that isn’t thinly veiled autobiography.

Violence and murder are real, yes, I accept that: children are murdered, there are horrible, evil, people who do hurt people, horribly. But why is so much fiction about this? Why are there so many crime novels in the world, so much crime drama on television and in the cinemas? I don’t think it’s healthy, I don’t think it’s right, for the escapism that people seek to be rooted in death and extreme forms of misery. Cancer happens more than murder, but you wouldn’t know that if you learned about death from television. It is sadder to see an individual’s life continue, deeply unhappy, for a long time, than for most deaths (see my post on Malcolm Lowry’s reimagining of Tender Is The Night). For a death to be sad in fiction, we must care about the person who dies and/or we must care about the people who care about the person who dies. This is why crime fiction bores me and why I think it is a problem: the reader is rarely expected to care about the body, the body is a puzzle rather than a person, it is the survivors and the witnesses who tend to be in danger, or the potential next victims. In Silence of the Lambs, an off the top of my head example, the reader gets to know the character who has been kidnapped by Buffalo Bill and awaits murder, but the multiple women – and in most of these stories it is women – who are dead before the story begins are incidental, are a plot device, not a character. This is dangerous, I think, and normalises a detached lack of sympathy.

But meh, anyway, what do I know?

Jackdaws is a well written and intriguing character study, however in its use of shock and horror it undermines its literary merits by becoming a scandalous piece, rather than a gentle, uncomplex, slow description of place that – for me, with my wishy washy politics – would be a much more satisfying read.

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1 comment on “Jackdaws by Neil Campbell

  1. Pingback: The Numbers by Christopher Burns – Triumph of the Now

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