Phew! That was a long title and the first story in this remarkable debut collection by Jessie Greengrass. The title story is one of the strongest and details a sailor’s repeated visits to a remote Arctic island, trapping and killing the Great Auk, a type of penguin that was hunted to extinction in the mid-nineteenth century. Like many of the stories here Greengrass doesn’t shy away from violence in her vivid descriptions of how easy the Great Auk’s are to kill. And she deftly uses the loss of the species as a way to reflect on the humanity of the narrator: “We felt in them the mirror of our sin and the more we killed of them the cleaner we became.” Greengrass neatly apes the more florid language of the nineteenth century without wandering into pastiche and as in all her stories conjures a unique and interesting voice.
The standout story for me was Dolphin – a deceptively simple story of a daughter’s trip to an aquarium with her father who is in the process of splitting up with her mother. It is both a dissection on the effect of divorce on a child and the realisation that no one’s parents are perfect, as well as an exploration of memory and growing up. It also contains one of the most heartbreaking descriptions of an animal I have read and captures perfectly the loneliness and melancholia of being a child left by themselves, not yet an adult but no longer innocent and guileless.
Greengrass’s collection is well worth picking up, her writing style is incredibly readable, she weaves together long flowing sentences that have their own rhythm to draw you in. Her characters are well thought out and believable. She inserts just enough of the weird and strange to keep you gripped and by the end leave you wondering what happens next and who the people you have been sharing the story with might really be.