Jessie Greengrass’ amazingly titled short story collection An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It won The Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2016 and is now shortlisted for The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. It’s an ambitious collection ranging from historical fiction to post-apocalyptic futures with a number of themes and ideas uniting the pieces.
All of Greengrass’ protagonists are isolated in some way. This is clear from the opening story (from which the collection as a whole takes its title) in which the narrator relates their time spent in St. Kilda where their behaviour was responsible for the death of the Great Auk.
The first years we climbed out of the launch and we went ashore wading through them, hip deep, to find a flat place which we would clear of birds with a club swung about circular and, when the birds were cleared, in the gap they left we could see their eggs spread across the ground like a scree, like shingle, each the size of a fist and a half a fist. I have never seen so many eggs. These numbers deceived us. It was not possible to realise from that expanse that each egg represented only singularity: that each pair of birds laid only one egg, each spring, down on the bare rock. This truth did not become clear to us until their numbers had reduced to the point that we could, in fact, count them: the birds, the eggs. The number of the birds twice the number of the eggs.
It’s not just the sense of isolation – humans on a depopulated island in the Atlantic Ocean who are dominating and destroying nature – that makes this quotation (and many others I could’ve selected) significant, it’s Greengrass’ sentences which are mostly complex with multiple clauses and, in this instance, use some very effective repetition.
The natural world returns with Knut Knutsson who, on finally becoming captain after the death of his predecessor, has to bury his former boss and invest himself with only a penguin and a pair of albatross as witnesses to events. As well as with the character in 2058, stranded on a site on the North Yorkshire Moors watching for ‘intrusions’ – some sort of alien/hallucinogenic happening.
Greengrass juxtaposes these forays into nature with pieces set in confined spaces where narrators dream of escape: the siblings in an underground bunker in ‘Some Kind of Safety’ who don’t know whether or not the world above ground still exists; the call-centre worker in ‘The Politics of Minor Resistance’ who rebels by talking in an accent not their own, and the person in ‘All the Other Jobs’ who dreams of running away because ‘the territory around me failed to match the map I held’:
When I was a child, adults looked so self-assured, such excellent subjects to be the bearers of my faith and trust, and I thought that by the age of thirty I would have that surety; but as I write this I am one month past my thirty-first birthday and as terrified and uncertain as I was when I was ten, and now it is all other people who seem to know what I have never learned, who while perhaps still fallible are still less fallible than me, more weighty, their mistakes less the result of rank incompetence, their decisions more carefully made.
For me, however, where Greengrass excels is in her stories about relationships: in ‘On Time Travel’ when the narrator’s father dies suddenly, their friends avoid them, and they and their mother become trapped, ‘we hadn’t been a happy family, ever; and it was more this fact even more than the fact that he was gone which trapped us, me and my mother in the moment of his passing’, it’s a time in which the narrator and their friends ‘pretended hard to be ourselves’. In ‘Dolphin’ where the narrator recalls her parents’ marriage crumbling and one of the rare occasions on which her father took her out and left her to watch a dolphin show on her own, and in ‘The Comfort of the Dead’ when the protagonist begins to be visited by the dead, his marriage ends and he grows old.
They seemed to him to understand how so much of the time he felt himself to be failing to live up to a standard he had never explicitly accepted, how he felt himself to be only the shadow of that which he might have done but never would, this failure a constituent part of him, bred in; how faced with a choice between certain mediocrity and risky success he had picked the first, every time, and would again.
An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It is a confident collection exploring some fundamentally human issues through some of the most mundane of situations and some of the most extraordinary. It’s an interesting collection in which the stories are often densely packed with the narrator’s thoughts – this is very much a series of protagonists who tell you their stories. I’m interested to see where Greengrass goes next.
Thanks to The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award for the review copy.