This is a novel about nature, nature conservation and nature conservationists. It is a cracking tale and I read the book’s 440 pages pretty quickly in order to find out what happened in the lives of the main protagonists and in the natural world around them. We move from behavioural ecologists in Oxford to seabird biologists in Aberdeen, and from Wytham Woods to distant seabird colonies by way of a French oil slick. There are a few real people mentioned but the cast of fictional characters is very true to life.
We pass through love, ambition, betrayal, redemption and friendship (not necessarily in that order) and by way of sex, fights, drunkenness and grief. Pretty typical for Oxford academics and UK nature conservationists you might think. The characters, particularly the main protagonist, are complex and one’s (at least my) opinion of them changes through the book. There is a rivetting human story which makes this a good read but added into that there is also a tantalising conservation story which only comes to be revealed deep into the pages of the book. But by that time we are hooked on the main characters and want to know how they deal with an exceptional, a life-changing, discovery. It is only then that we discover who Fergus is, and what he is silent about. And we wonder, like he wondered, whether it was right to keep quiet or not. Fergus faced a very difficult dilemma and the reader is left wondering what he or she would have done in Fergus’s position. I’m still wondering what I would have done.
The plot twists and turns, but not in silly ways, and builds to a crescendo on a remote island off the west coast of Scotland in a gale. You can almost taste the salt on your lips as you read those passages. And you know the characters well enough by then that you half know what they will do but you cannot guess how events will play out. It’s a great book.
Wildlife is written, accurately, through these pages. The author has done his research and talked to the right people to make sure that it all rings true. The non-naturalist reader will learn some interesting things about seabirds in particular but the more experienced naturalist will simply see how the wildlife has been skilfully knitted into the story and will nod appreciatively now and again because it all fits.
This review has no plot spoilers but I’m keen for some of my friends to have read the book too so that we can talk about it and ask ‘When did you first realise…?’ and ‘Didn’t you think that Character A slightly resembled Real Person B?’, but the most interesting discussion point will be the central conundrum of the book, ‘Was Fergus right to be silent?’.
There aren’t many novels about nature conservation – very few. And I would say there are none that delve as deeply but entertainingly into issues and choices. This is a very good book because it’s a page-turner but it’s also a thought-provoker. What more can one ask for?
The cover? Slightly odd and slightly dull – I’d give it a lowly 5/10.
Fergus the Silent by Michael McCarthy is published by YouCaxton Publications.