'We had been in the cottage for a week when the cormorant was delivered, that October evening.'
When a young family inherit a remote mountain-side cottage in north Wales, giving them the chance to change the course of their lives and start over, the one condition of the will seems strange but harmless. They are to care for a cormorant until the end of its life.
But the bird is no tame pet, and within its natural state of wildness there is a malevolent intelligence and intent towards sharp, unexpected violence. However, it is the fascination it holds for Harry, the couple’s precious only child, that really threatens their dreams of rural contentment.
First published in 1986, at which point Gregory won a Somerset Maugham award for it, 'The Cormorant' has now been reissued by Welsh publisher Parthian, one of the publishers who kept the works of Arthur Machen in print during the lean years and to whom we shall always be thankful.
It's the story of a young family who inherit from the narrator's Uncle Ian a cottage in North Wales that allows them to quit their teaching jobs and take themselves and their infant son out of the city and into the wilds of Snowdonia. However, Uncle Ian's will had a codicil requiring them to take care of his rescued, ill-tempered, cormorant and it's the bird's arrival which triggers unexpected emotions of horror and fascination from our un-named narrator's wife (Ann) and son (Harry) respectively.
Even the most cursory online search for this book will bring up many references to a controversial scene and when it arrives it's certainly ickily gratuitous and almost certainly unnecessary but what eighties horror didn't have gratuitous sex and violence so, I kinda looked on it as par for the course.
Beyond the sex and violence Gregory excels at conjouring the lush but unforgiving North Wales landscape and it is in this that the book really comes alive; the wintery mountains and turbulent waters of the Caernarfon coast are at the heart of the narrative reflecting the personalities of the human and avian characters.
Gregory has populated his story with flawed, often unlikeable characters; the hapless narrator vacilating between love and hate in his relationship with the bird, occasionally losing touch with himself both to reverie and to fury; Ann both oddly submissive and hard-heartedly decisive and, the child, Harry precocious and seemingly in thrall to the bird. Indeed, so odd was the behaviour of these characters and linked with the narrator's occasional, visual, auditory and olfactory phantasmagorias of his benefactor that I began to wonder if any of them, the narrator included, were actually even real and whether the whole thing was a psychotic break happening within the mind of a not dead but very unwell Uncle Ian. The ending certainly didn't give me any clear answers either way and I find myself still pondering this several days later.
With a shared DNA with recent publications like Andrew Michael Hurley's 'The Loney', 'Devil's Day' and 'Starve Acre' and Max Porter's 'Lanny' and with it's outermost focus on the interactions between people, nature and the supernatural 'The Cormorant' feels remarkably fresh and very much of the moment.
Buy it here - UK / US.
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