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Fergus The Silent (cover)

Publisher: YouCaxton Publications

Publication Year: 2021

Binding: Softback

Page Count: 452

ISBN Number: 9781914424380

Price: £ 12.99

Fergus The Silent

Michael McCarthy is perhaps best known for his environmental journalism and nature writing. His skills were recognised by BTO back in 2011, when he was awarded the annual Dilys Breese Medal for outstanding communication of science to new audiences.

Fergus The Silent marks a departure from his usual work, in that it is a foray into fiction. You have to admire the ambition of somebody whose first published fictional work is a 440-page novel! Given its length, you won’t be surprised to hear that Fergus covers a lot of ground, from the damage parents can inflict on their children, to toxic academic ambition, seabird conservation and a particularly tricky moral dilemma.

The main plot revolves around Miles Bonnici and is set at the turn of the millennium. At the start of the book, we learn about Miles’ career trajectory to a fellowship at the ‘Niko Tinbergen Institute’ at Oxford University, having had a Nature front cover for a paper on extra-pair paternity in Guillemots breeding on the Pembrokeshire island of ‘Skarholm’ during his PhD. However, his interest in birds is purely as a means to surpass the career of his brilliant but unloving physicist father. Miles gets together with Jenny Pittaway, a New Zealander working in Oxford as she finds her way in the world after her own university studies. Miles proceeds to break her heart, but only realises why this (and the birds) matter when he’s sent to report on the effects of the Erika oil spill on the west coast of France by the ‘United Kingdon Offshore Conservation Agency’. The devastation he witnesses finally cuts through his ambition and exposes his soul, specifically when he finds the body of ‘Arty Bu-bu’, a Guillemot from Skarholm whose behaviour underpinned his famous Nature paper.

We don’t meet the Fergus of the book’s title until the novel’s second half. The island of ‘Lanna’, the most remote in Britain and Ireland, is threatened with its own oil disaster when exploration starts taking place. Lanna has been closed since 1939, and no seabird surveys take place there. The data on its importance for seabirds could prevent licenses for drilling from being granted. However, Lanna’s seabirds are closely guarded by Fergus, the mysterious warden who spends every breeding season on the island and is weighed down by a secret about the wildlife there. Miles convinces Jenny to come with him to Lanna to survey the seabirds, where they discover Fergus’s secret and grapple with its implications.

Since I could hardly precis the plot into less than two paragraphs (and even then I have stopped well short of ending to avoid any spoilers), you’ll realise that Fergus The Silent has many twists and turns, and we meet a large number of characters in a variety of places. I enjoyed working out which UK and European academic and seabirder luminaries inspired the various characters, and unsurprisingly, the author’s descriptions of the natural world and the damage human activity can inflict upon it are excellent. However, I was less convinced by the female characters in the book, who I found a little two-dimensional and shoehorned into traditional gender roles. I also felt like some parts of the plot could have moved along a little more quickly.

I see there are some glowing reviews out there from some of the very same people I suspect might have partly inspired some of the characters. Despite my small misgivings, I did think Fergus The Silent was a page turner. So why not get hold of a copy and see what you think?

Book reviewed by Viola Ross-Smith

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