In brief: Stewkey Blues; Birds and Us; Lives of Houses – reviews

DJ Taylor
Salt Publishing, £9.99, pp176

Famed though it is for its flatness, Norfolk is a county of manifold aspects, many of which are captured in these sharp, subtle new stories by native son DJ Taylor. They all emerged from 2020’s lockdown, and together delineate the region’s geographical and social range, occasionally squinting back in time and tuning in to mythical echoes. The title story is named after the blue-hued cockles distinctive to Stiffkey (typically for Norfolk, it’s pronounced “Stewkey”), and depicts with exquisite precision the romantic undoing of a man who moves to the coast from Clapham with his capricious girlfriend. Expect lightly devastating epiphanies throughout, along with droll wit and pungent local flavour.

Tim Birkhead
Viking, £25, pp464

In a shallow neolithic cave in Andalusia, a flock of 200 birds adorns a wall. Rendered in red ochre and dating back 8,000 years, they include flamingos and herons, raptors and avocets. For avid ornithologist Tim Birkhead, this frieze marks the genesis of our species’ relationship with birds, one that has over the millennia encompassed awe, envy and exploitation. As he charts our mutual history, he considers the Egyptians’ bird-filled catacombs, the evolution of falconry, and the Victorian craze for stuffed specimens. A response that’s altogether newer is empathy, the implications of which Birkhead probes with typical fastidiousness. His book arrives enticingly illustrated, but it’s his obsessive passion that is most transfixing.

Edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee
Princeton University Press, £14.99, pp304 (paperback)

“A house can embody a person’s childhood, the story of a marriage, an inherited way of life, or a national history,” writes Hermione Lee in her introduction to this immensely satisfying collection. Among its contributors are historians, poets and curators, and the questions their essay raise resist any cosiness implicit in the book’s theme. Julian Barnes travels to Finland where Sibelius’s lakeside Ainola is much changed, though it remains a place of “conjured sounds and final silence”. Jenny Uglow finds that the villa Edward Lear designed in Sanremo shares something of the Quangle Wangle’s Hat. And in The Fear of Houses, Alexander Masters muses on homelessness and its causes.

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