Words’ worth : Wings of hope

The Guardian

I think I’m quite normal really,” says the unnamed narrator of Pelican Blood. That’s a matter of opinion: he’s an obsessive birder, apt to drive hundreds of miles on the offchance of seeing a rarity. The world is full of such obsessives, of course; but this man is also a double murderer. He shares his interest with two close friends. Bish is an overweight blues harmonica player; Stevie is a bird-illustrator. The three-way relationship is complex, resilient and of long standing, but neither Bish nor Stevie can be told the truth about Owen Whittle, a notorious egg collector, shot raiding a goshawk’s nest, or landowner John Ure Peacock, killer of protected waterbirds and now himself a victim.

This isn’t a whodunnit: the reader is in on the secret from the book’s opening page, and Cris Freddi has to work hard to provide alternative sources of suspense. He isn’t always successful

- there’s an air of contrivance about some of the episodes and a flatness in their resolution - but the novel is still compulsively readable. It is, at heart, a thoughtful and often moving meditation on the nature of obsession and the redemptive role of love and friendship in lives damaged by the hammer-blows of experience. It’s also a bitter lament for a world blighted by human greed and folly. Freddi is too subtle a writer to labour his points or to set up neat oppositions. A landowner initially suspected of killing a pair of honey buzzards turns out to have been protecting them, while the narrator’s environmentalist credentials are far from impeccable: “We don’t really care about conservation,” he says, “not if it gets in the way of birding.”

Even so, the necessity of caring becomes the implicit theme of the closing chapters as each of the three main characters rediscovers purpose and direction, and the novel’s final image — a migrating pipit over open sea — suggests both the absurdity and the importance of the struggle to make life matter.

(Pelican Blood by Cris Freddi, 240pp, Fourth Estate, £10.99)