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Adventure Lit Their Star by Kenneth Allsop
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Adventure Lit Their Star

by Kenneth Allsop

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5482 (1) allsop (1) birds (2) fiction (1) nature (2) non-fiction (1) novel (1) orange (1) ornithology (1) penguin (1) plover (1) ringed plover (1) room 2 (1) unread (1) wildlife (1)

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Anyone expecting a serene, poetic walk (or cruising flight) through nature from Adventure Lit Their Star is likely to be disappointed, for even though the writing is rich and often lyrical, the book is rooted in the 'red in tooth and claw' perspective on nature advanced by the likes of Jack London's The Call of the Wild. Kenneth Allsop's book is nowhere near the level of London's classic (nor, with its unassuming anorakishness, does it even assume to be) but Allsop's depictions of wildlife, showing the animals' natural instincts without resorting to anthropomorphism, and showing the death and brutality without being gory or sentimental, did remind me of London's compassion and style (at least in this respect). Most birds are bastards, in truth, and a lot of these cute or cuddly birds actually have some rather disturbing Darwinian behaviours. The fragility of life – the smashing of eggs, the hunting of small birds by larger birds, the anguish of mother hens whose carefully-nurtured nests are raided or disrupted – is hard to read about.

These moments of tragedy are the best in the book (if one can use such a word as 'best' here) and when you ally these moments with Allsop's evident writing skill you would think there should be no cause for complaint in reading Adventure Lit Their Star. But the fatal flaw in the book is this: speaking without hyperbole or malice, it is often just a series of bird-watching reports. To be sure, the little ringed plovers we follow do have character (particularly the scarred hen) and there are interesting interludes with human characters, but these often seem like intermissions between literal accounts of birdwatching (in his Introduction to the 1972 edition of the book, Allsop even refers to a heaving collection of nature sketches he drew from). This in itself wouldn't be a problem if not for the fact that nature writing is, by its very nature (no pun intended), very detailed, describing all intricate features and colours and movements and so on. It kills story momentum and it is hard to share Allsop's anorakish excitement for birdwatching unless you already had it. I have nothing against the hobby and I don't think it's silly, but it's hard to understand the fervour among its adherents when you're on the outside. "Now hold your hat on… That isn't the half of it," one birdwatcher exclaims to another on page 76, when discussing evidence of nesting by the little ringed plovers. To non-birdwatchers reading the story, there's no thrill in that moment: such enthusiasm needs to be earned.

As a non-birdwatching reader you do still care about the birds, though this is more because of the violence done to them throughout and the fragility of their nests (a wider message or moral to the story comes to the fore with the introduction of the egg-thief at the end) than any sharing in Allsop's passion. This is not necessarily a mark against Allsop – he seems to recognize the limited appeal of his hobby ("they had founded the school Ornithological and Entomological Society," he writes on page 76, "and kept the membership at a steady two until the term they left, when it died on their departing heels") – but it does mean the potential of the story is limited for a wider readership. The book is almost entirely absent plot, even if there are nice little self-contained stories that emerge from the mass from time to time. It is these stories and moments which will sustain ordinary readers like myself through the book, culminating in a rewarding and bittersweet ending, and it is nice to know that avid birdwatchers have in Allsop's slight, unassuming tome a worthy champion. ( )
  MikeFutcher | Aug 23, 2017 |
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