The Woodcock by Richard Smyth [8/10].

In a small northern English coastal town soon after World War I, a nerdy young naturalist spends his days combing the shore and observing birds. His beautiful, locally born wife seems content with a housewife’s routine life. Through their eyes, “The Woodcock” is a tale of love, lust, hubris, morality, and humanity, a tale that speedily takes off when a larger-than-life American whaler, together with his red-haired daughters, arrives in town planning to build the equivalent of Coney Island out into the sea. A brilliant nonfiction writer, with five books under his belt, Richard Smyth has taken to fiction with aplomb, displaying on every page the flair, economy, and eloquence needed to lift this story from the realm of period piece (I found myself recalling two recent movies, Ammonite and The Dig) into something magical. A naturalist himself, the author imbues the town and coastline with cinematic depth, and his portrayal of the extended cast of characters, local or transplanted, is as keen as that of the birdlife. An accelerating pace transported me, over two evenings, to a grand, unpredictable yet fitting climax, and over those two evenings, I had occasion to chuckle and gasp. Quite unlike anything else I’ve read this year, The Woodcock is an unmitigated delight.

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