Briefly: Stewkey Blues; The birds and us; Vies de Maisons – opinions | Books

DJ Taylor
Salt Edition, £9.99, pp176

Although famous for its flatness, Norfolk is a county with many sides, many of which are captured in these sharp and subtle new stories from native son DJ Taylor. They have all emerged from the 2020 lockdown and together delineate the geographical and social expanse of the region, sometimes going back in time and plugging into mythical echoes. The title story is named after the distinctive blue-hued hulls of Stiffkey (typically for Norfolk, it’s pronounced “Stewkey”), and depicts with exquisite precision the romantic defeat of a man who moves to the Clapham coast with his capricious girlfriend. Expect mildly devastating epiphanies throughout, as well as a funny wit and tangy local flavor.

Tim Birkhead
Viking, £25, pp464

In a shallow Neolithic cave in Andalusia, a flock of 200 birds adorns a wall. Rendered in red ocher and dating back 8,000 years, they include flamingos and herons, raptors and avocets. For avid birdwatcher Tim Birkhead, this frieze marks the genesis of our species’ relationship with birds, a relationship that over the millennia has encompassed fear, envy and exploitation. As he charts our shared history, he considers the bird-filled catacombs of the Egyptians, the evolution of falconry and the Victorian craze for taxidermied specimens. A quite newer response is empathy, the implications of which Birkhead probes with typical thoroughness. Her book arrives tantalizingly illustrated, but it’s her obsessive passion that is most piercing.

Edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee
Princeton University Press, £14.99, pp304 (pocket book)

“A house can embody a person’s childhood, the story of a marriage, an inherited way of life or a national story,” writes Hermione Lee in her introduction to this hugely satisfying collection. Among its contributors are historians, poets and curators, and the questions raised by their essay resist any comfort implicit in the theme of the book. Julian Barnes travels to Finland where Sibelius’ lakeside Ainola has changed greatly, though it remains a place of “conjured sounds and final silence”. Jenny Uglow thinks the villa Edward Lear designed in Sanremo shares something of Quangle Wangle’s hat. And in The Fear of Houses, Alexander Masters reflects on homelessness and its causes.

Colin L. Johnson