Thursday, 13 November 2014

Book Review | Wakening the Crow by Stephen Gregory

On a freezing night in January bookshop owner Oliver Gooch and his small daughter Chloe come across the crow, a raggedy skeletal wretch of a bird, which takes up a persistent refuge in their new converted church home.

Oliver took the money for the church from his daughter’s accident insurance. Chloe, once a rambunctious and defiant child, is now a silently smiling companion to Oliver; both a gift and curse as Oliver balances his guilt over her accident with his preference for this new, easy-to-manage child.

As the crow begins to infiltrate their lives it changes something in Oliver and Chloe. How is the crow connected to the boyhood tooth of Edgar Allan Poe, a mysterious gift to Oliver from which his bookshop draws its name, and with what purpose does it haunt the gloomy, fire-lit vestry of Poe’s Tooth Books?


Stephen Gregory pulls precisely none of his punches in Wakening the Crow, a darkly fantastic fiction about family which, like The Waking That Kills before it, is interested in the ties that bind us together largely because these lead to the lies that drive us apart.

Oliver Gooch is "a dabbler and a dilettante," someone who would "always procrastinate if there was an easier option," (p.95) and this past year, there has been. He and Rosie, his hard-working wife, have come into a substantial sum of money—enough, though the numbers go undisclosed, to purchase a church: an old Anglican in one of Nottingham's nicer suburbs.

"No, not the whole building," Gooch is quick to qualify. "As the congregation had dwindled to almost nothing, the commissioners had closed the church and sold it as two parcels. The body of the building was now a furniture warehouse. We'd bought the tower," to live in, and the vestry as well—a very special space our protagonist plans to turn into a bookshop. Specifically "a specialist outlet of strange and occult and arcane books. The shop I'd daydreamed foolishly about having." (p.27)

Now he's in a position to realise those same daydreams, you'd think he'd be happy, but how Gooch found himself here—the appalling cost of it—haunts him. Him and Rosie both. After all, they bought what they've got with blood money; with an insurance payout made after their daughter was brain-damaged in a car accident:
She wasn't the sly, defiant, occasionally foul-mouthed Chloe she'd been before. She couldn't speak. She couldn't read. She just smiled. She blinked and she smiled, in utter, blank, angelic silence. She was lovely, in the same way that a soft and harmless Labrador dog is lovely, but she was altered completely. (p.23)
For the better, in Gooch's book.

"For me, on that sparkling morning, it seemed that the girl had been born again, excised of all her niggling nastiness, and delivered anew, as pristine as the day." (p.118) Not that he'll ever admit this to anyone other than himself. Certainly not to his wife—not on his life. Indeed, Gooch often ponders "the paradox that Rosie prayed every waking moment for Chloe to come back, and yet I was dreading her return." (p.98)

Like a worm in one's windpipe, this terrible tension is threaded throughout the plot of the novel, before being disgorged in a ghastly last act which in a sense inverts the catastrophic climax of The Waking That Kills.

That Wakening the Crow has such a lot in common with its predecessor is evidently intentional, so though the stories stand alone—sharing neither characters nor narrative—the thematic duology they form is indubitably designed. Both books revolve around children with disabilities; both feature dysfunctional families; both invoke the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe; and in both, but of course, there are birds. Herein, The Waking That Kills' sinister swifts are replaced a bedraggled carrion crow which makes a nest for itself in the vestry:
A starveling, a survivor. It had the defiant, dangerous look of an escaped convict. An escapee from deathrow. [...] Black bare legs, shiny and scaly like the legs of a lizard, knobby-knuckly feet tipped with ebony claws. Those eyes, blue-black, rimmed with a ripple of black skin, and a sudden blink of a pale, membranous lid. The beak, its means of survival, a tool for a lifetime of thievery and thuggery, a weapon for wounding and killing and eating. For scavenging carrion. (p.80)
A malevolent presence it may be, yet again Gooch goes against his wife's wishes, refusing to remove the curious creature on the grounds that its "grotesque silhouette" (p.78) adds to the overall ambience of Poe's Tooth Books. I dare say it does... but at what cost?

Wakening the Crow is a very good book—better even than its excellent predecessor—but be warned, all: it's not nice. It's nasty, in fact; replete with any number of unsettling elements and a few truly revolting moments, most of which are brought into being by the text's unsympathetic central character: a horrible husband and a bad father who may or may not have molested kids, including Chloe. Protagonists don't have to be pleasant to be befitting—and Gooch is, given the tale Gregory tells—though that's certainly easier said than felt.

Like the book Gooch fantasises from time to time about writing, Wakening the Crow is "something so dark and disturbing and demanding of the readers, so odd and unusual and out of the ordinary" (p.28) that it's apt, at the last, to be overlooked. If you have the heart for it, however, expect to expose a fiction of human horror of the highest order.


Wakening the Crow
by Stephen Gregory

UK & US Publication: November 2014, Solaris

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