Category: Stewart Michael

Michael Stewart, Café Assassin (2015)

Cafe AssassinA few years ago, I enjoyed Michael Stewart’s debut novel, King Crow – so I was really pleased to discover that he had a new book out. Café Assassin is quite different in subject from its predecessor, but it has the same tension, rooted in a strong first-person voice that feels as though it could go anywhere.

The owner of that voice is Nick Smith, newly released from prison twenty-two years after being wrongly convicted of murder. His words are addressed to Andrew Honour, a childhood friend on whom Nick now seeks revenge. Nick looks at Andrew’s life – a successful job as a QC, happily married to his old girlfriend Liv, on whom Nick always had a crush – and wants what he sees. Over the course of the novel, Nick gets back on his feet, and gradually inveigles his way into Andrew’s and Liv’s lives – but to what end?

I found Café Assassin to have an enormous narrative pull, which comes from the ambivalent attitude we develop towards Nick: we know he has seriously been wronged, but we also learn what a violent individual he can be; we want Nick to have some sort of resolution, but not necessarily the kind of revenge it appears he’s working towards. Beyond the plot, there’s a mutable quality to Stewart’s prose, and the sense of identity Nick creates in his account. Nick has to remind himself that it’s not 1989 but 2011, and there a constant sense of dislocation as the gap of years is opened and bridged and opened again. Then there are the interstitial chapters in second-person, which describe Nick’s life in prison; these aren’t a straightforward contrast with the first-person text, but intersect with it at right-angles, adding a further layer of complexity. If we never quite know where Café Assassin will end up, perhaps it’s because we never quite have the measure of its protagonist – and the sense is that perhaps he doesn’t even have the full measure of himself.

Café Assassin is published by Bluemoose Books.

Michael Stewart, King Crow (2011)

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.

Michael Stewart’s website
An extract from the novel
Some other reviews of King Crow: Sam Jordison for The Guardian; Being obscure clearly.

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