Book review: Murmuration by Robert Lock
Historical fiction has become popular among novelists and readers in recent years and this book is among the best of the genre.
A prostitute’s murder under a seaside pier is the starting point for the series of linked stories, the actions taking place between 1863 and the present day.
The dramatis personae linked to the pier and the popular (though eventually fading) resort are vividly painted. Some are distinctly tawdry characters, some decidedly unpleasant and malevolent, some are principled. The motives for their actions and reactions are well analysed in a narrative which makes for a gripping, intelligent and unputdownable read.
Aspirant Victorian comedian Georgie Parr makes what, for him and his audience, could be described as “the big time,” sacrificing his conscience by base, tawdry humour, lapped up by the masses. On the surface he has a happy marriage but his secret lustings for the pier’s resident female contortionist betray a deeper malaise, which ends in tragedy.
Another character, Bella Kaminska is the difficult-to-like psychic whose fortune telling is a fraudulent racket. But when a tough-minded client gives her a hard time, the sympathy is very much with pier’s prophetess.
Where would a resort be without its local historians, in this case town hall archivist Colin Draper? Draper decides to re-examine the Victorian murder case in the light of a contemporary attack on a prostitute. His initially misguided efforts to work out what happened a century and a half earlier form a fascinating twist in the interconnected tales.
Mickey Braithwaite, a character who helps connect the stories is an unlikely hero. The first encounter with him is during World War Two when, despite his simplicity of mind, he becomes an honorary member of the Observer Corps, because of his uncanny ability to know what type of German aircraft are about to drop their bombs locally.
Throughout the five main stories there are recurring themes. One of them is the organic nature of the resort itself, its development, its decline, the kind of entertainment in vogue. A wider theme is the topic of time, and the interconnections/overlaps between the various acts, performers, pier staff and management – a case of history (almost) repeating itself.
Then there are the birds – starlings – rather than seagulls or pigeons….The title “Murmuration” means a spectacular aerial display carried out by thousands of starlings – from places such as Blackpool’s piers from time to time.
As the author, a former Blackpool Gazette photographer, explained in an interview last year: ““If anyone has seen the starling flocks in flight over North Pier they will remember, it’s an amazing spectacle and those murmurations are like a metaphor that runs through the book.”
The book has a both a filmic and rhythmic feel about it. There is no attempt at whitewashing the less salubrious elements of this resort, especially the more earthy aspects of the kind of characters contributing to the town’s entertainment.
Murmuration is the kind of story which would convert well into a several-part TV series. It is hypnotic, captivating and marvellously well crafted..
(Legend Press, Price: £8.99)