King Crow by Michael Stewart

Paul Cooper lives in inner city Salford.

So do I.

Paul Cooper is obsessed with birds and ticks off the species he's seen in a field guide.

So do I.

Paul Cooper's favourite bird is the raven.

So is mine.

Paul Cooper is inadvertently caught up in the potential murder of a local gangster and has to go on the run with a charismatic psychopathic classmate who wants to overtake his former gang boss as the top dealer in town.

OK, that'll probably be where the similarity ends, then.

King Crow by Michael Stewart is the story of a lonely, neglected boy, dragged from one Salford estate (and consequently school) to another by his mother, who, since the departure of his father, has lurched between numerous failed relationships, all with women, and appears to suffer from clinical depression. Clearly an intelligent boy, Paul doesn't make friends easily: he's only really interested in birds, relates all people to them, and struggles to understand why everyone else wouldn't be interested in them too. His social awkwardness and atypical thought processes mean he doesn't do well at school, and his unstable home life doesn't help -  so he's a serial truant and spends lessons drawing pictures: he's worked out that in most of his schools, under-achieving isn't a problem if you're quiet and keep your pen on the paper.

Paul is an obvious target for bullies then, and his saviour in this regard is Ashley O'Keefe. Good-looking, tough and charismatic, Ashley is everything that Paul isn't - but he's also a runner for a local criminal gang. A chain of events straight from a gritty urban thriller means that Paul and Ashley are soon driving a stolen car to Cumbria, where Paul's beloved ravens circle above Helvellyn and where matters are complicated by Becky, a middle-class raver who spurns streetwise Ashley for shy, awkward Paul. The catalytic effect that Becky has on Paul and Ashley's relationship and their foolish decision to accept hospitality from a former violent bank robber with a fondness for skunk, turn Paul's life upside-down.

Much of the book takes place in rural Cumbria, but the details of Paul's life in Salford, first introduced in the early chapters and recurring throughout in flashback as Paul recalls them, are exceptionally well-observed. The locations named in the book are all real and well-known to me, but it's not just the urban landscapes that are perfectly depicted: it's the harsh realities of life within them for those, like Paul, who have slipped through society's net.

Paul, who tells the story, frequently diverges from the narrative to give the reader a detailed ornithology lesson, and it becomes increasingly clear that his obsessive and wholly unsentimental interest in birds is his way of trying to maintain a thread of order through the chaos of his life. Also casually scattered throughout the story are incidental anecdotes about Paul's childhood. There was the time a couple tried to abduct him when he was lost at the park, for instance, and his friendship with a man who could have been either a rapist or a vigilante; there's the brief period he spent in care when his mother was sectioned, and the Christmas when he watched her cry uncontrollably through Dr Who while they ate a Christmas dinner of sausage rolls. A fine example of an unreliable narrator, Paul could easily have been a whiny, angst-ridden Holden Caulfield, but his remarkable lack of self-pity and his detached pragmatism make him far more interesting than that. I did see occasional echoes of Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but King Crow is a much darker and more complicated book, and there are far fewer certainties in Paul's character.

I read King Crow in one sitting, turning the pages with increasing urgency. Bleak and unsettling at times, even disturbing, it's also oddly uplifting and often touching. If you read this book and think some of the plot seems a little improbable, or a few things don't seem to quite add up, stick with it: it's worth it, and suddenly everything will make an odd, bittersweet kind of sense.

King Crow is published by Blue Moose, an independent Arts Council-supported publisher based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, whose website states that the founders were 'tired of all the formulaic publishing that was on offer in the high street'. Certainly, there's not much that's formulaic about King Crow, and the novel has many hallmarks of a future cult classic - but equally, it fully deserves to become a bestseller.

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