As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Books & Birds – review

Alex Preston’s literary compendium of birds, illustrated by Neil Gower, is a sumptuous labour of love

“It’s not quite the book I meant to write, but then, as Iris Murdoch said, ‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.’” Alex Preston is either being very hard on himself or disingenuous if he is suggesting that As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a “wreck”. The award-winning novelist, author of This Bleeding City, The Revelations and In Love and War has sheared away from fiction to collaborate with the deservedly acclaimed artist Neil Gower in making an object of thrilling beauty. In the words of its editor, James Gurbutt of Corsair, “We want to make this the most beautiful book of 2017.”

As Kingfishers Catch Fire was inspired, in part, by a “bird memoir” written in the late 1920s by Edward Grey, who in addition to being Preston’s great-great-uncle was Britain’s longest serving foreign secretary in the years leading up to, and into, the first world war. “The Charm of Birds was a record of his life, smuggled into a bird book,” writes Preston. In this respect, As Kingfishers Catch Fire shares a familial relationship with Dan Richards’s energetic Climbing Days and James Macdonald Lockhart’s elegant Raptor in revisiting the work [and in the cases of Richards and Macdonald Lockhart, the footsteps] of illustrious and impressive forebears.

goldfinches on thistles by neil gower
Goldfinches on thistles. Illustration: Neil Gower

There is also something of Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines about Preston’s writing – the second part of Chatwin’s book being more common-place book than travelogue – since As Kingfishers Catch Fire has been sifted from notebooks kept over many, many years in which Preston has collected the words of dozens of writers. Each chapter is arranged around a bird, each bird illustrated by Gower in a mixture of gouache and watercolour that brings to mind both William Morris and Eric Ravilious in the confluence of an almost Arts and Crafts awareness of design with the chalky pastel palette of the South Downs.

The challenge that Preston and Gower have set themselves is to distil the literary essences of the birds that are their subject. Each chapter stands alone, drawing on the words of poets, novelists and naturalists and blended in the glass of Preston’s gaze. Quoting Jonathan Franzen, he writes: “They had short lives and long summers. We should all be so lucky as to leave behind such heirs.”

The kingfisher of the title refers to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s 1918 poem of the same name, although Preston pushes aside the incandescent image, reiterating the idea of the bird’s short life (barely a year) and also its filthy nest. “Here is a bird dwelling in his bone-crypt, living a life of lonely divagations along wintry rivers, alone with its terrible beauty.” It is Ted Hughes whom Preston calls upon to draw together these two visions of the bird:

Through him, God
Marries a pit
Of fishy mire.

A favourite aunt introduces Preston to the poetry of swallows through the words of Kathleen Jamie. Ted Hughes’s black crow spars with Max Porter’s “thing with feathers”. The choice of birds is both eclectic and personal. Will Fiennes’s near mythical snow goose is included, despite Preston never having seen one in the wild. Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor and DH Lawrence all strive, with varying degrees of success, to describe the cry of the peacock. JA Baker is credited as “one of the guiding lights” of the book, although it is Robert Macfarlane’s name that appears more than any other, possibly at the expense of a richer diversity of contemporary voices (including those Macfarlane has encouraged).

a heron in a fishy stream by neil gower
Neil Gower’s striking depiction of a heron in teeming shallows. Illustration: Neil Gower

Memoir, or rather memory, gilds the narrative. The most moving chapter describes Preston’s father, bedbound with lymphoma, as he watches a family of collared doves on the rooftop opposite his window. He is woken by a fledgling dove on the windowsill inside the bedroom and tries to rescue the bird. Describing himself in the third person, Preston’s father writes: “Placid and accepting, she allows his right hand to embrace her body… while he emanates all he can in telepathic sedation. It, or something like it, must be working, for her wings remain static and spread, her breast neither heaving nor fluttering … How warm to the touch. He wants to stretch the moment to eternity.” This, perhaps, is the essence of the book, this longing for communion, for connection with things other than ourselves. No single image is as potent as that of the trapped, pensive, passive dove being liberated by one who remains in the room. Preston allows the folklore associated with both the dove (a blessing) and a bird entering a house (a presage of death) to speak for itself. The reader is invited to work out if there is a subtext, and to interpret it how they may. Consequently, As Kingfishers Catch Fire is both a joyful and a wondrous book, one that successfully captures the otherness of birds, while celebrating our yearning to transcend our lot, our yearning to touch the unknowable.

• As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Alex Preston and Neil Gower is published by Corsair (£25). To order a copy for £21.25 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Katharine Norbury

The GuardianTramp

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