Several hours before Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending was named as the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, The Guardian announced the result of its third annual ‘Not the Booker Prize’, voted for by readers of its books blog. The winner was Michael Stewart’s debut, published by the Hebden Bridge-based Bluemoose Books.
King Crow is narrated by sixteen-year-old Paul Cooper; not the most sociable of boys, he’s more interested in ornithology (and peppers this first-person account with facts from his bird books). But Cooper’s life takes a turn into darker territory when he becomes friends with Ashley O’Keefe at his new school; Ashley is mixed up in drugs, and double-crosses a local gangster in a bid to strike out on his own. Cooper and Ashley end up stealing a car and driving to Cumbria – one to flee the gang, the other in the hope of seeing some ravens. Along the way, Cooper meets a girl named Becky, and starts falling in love – but Ashley isn’t happy at the thought of being ignored.
Paul Cooper is an intriguing protagonist; it would have been easy enough for Stewart to paint him as a figure deserving of our sympathy, but instead the picture is more complicated. At the very beginning, we see Cooper try to block out the sight of a gang kicking a girl by focusing on what he knows about finches (one senses that he quite often uses his love of birds as a shield against the aspects of life he doesn’t like); and our response may be ambivalent, because it’s not clear whether he is callous or just fragile. The answer is probably a mixture of both, and Cooper becomes increasingly difficult to warm to, with his uncomfortable tendency to objectify the opposite sex as he does birds, and his peculiarly understated way of reacting to events (about a third of the way through, Cooper says, ‘Since meeting Ashley, my life has definitely got more interesting. I’ve done a lot of thing I’ve never done before,’ [p. 66], which seems a rather muted way of describing experiences which include seeing your best friend being tortured, stealing a car, and knocking a man down). And yet, Cooper’s voice remains amiable.
King Crow is skilfully structured to reveal its secrets only gradually. It’s clear from early on that there has been turmoil in Cooper’s family life and trouble at school, but exactly what and how much are things which only come into focus with time (and even then they’re perhaps not made fully clear). There is also the big twist, which occurs two-thirds into the book, and which I absolutely did not see coming – looking back, it is both carefully hidden and cunningly foreshadowed. It’s a twist that both puts a new gloss on what has gone before, and adds a different kind of urgency to what remains, because of what we have now come to understand.
Stewart’s novel maintains its effectiveness almost to the very end, at which point Cooper is perhaps overly eager to explain things. This could be seen as part of the character, another manifestation of the boy’s apparent nonchalance towards his circumstances; but, still, it’s a little jarring for a book which has so carefully balanced the withholding and revealing of information to then show so much of its hand all at once. Nevertheless, King Crow remains a fine debut that leaves one interested to see what Michael Stewart will write next.