Andrew Barrow

Bird Brain by Guy Kennaway

Text settings

Bird Brain

Guy Kennaway

Cape, pp. 291, £

Basil Peyton-Crumbe is a multi-millionaire landowner. An embattled man known to all, even his dogs, as ‘Banger’, he claims to have despatched at least 41,000 pheasants with the cheap old 12-bore he’s had since childhood. Shooting pheasants, he believes, is ‘an exquisite accomplishment’, as complex as writing a sonata or designing a cathedral.

On the first page of this bloodthirsty novel, Banger’s trusty old gun explodes in his hands and blows half his head off. No one seems particularly upset. Not his half-brother William, who succeeds to the estate, and certainly not his Springer Spaniel, Jam. Dismissing his dying employer as ‘a selfish oaf’, ‘fat arse’ and ‘grouchy old bastard’,  Jam longs to give the delicious-looking wound a good lick.

But now the fun starts. Poor old Banger finds himself instantly re-incarnated as a pheasant embryo, one of thousands of unhatched eggs on a nearby game farm. He and his fluffy friends are soon out and about, listening to Radio 4, even The Archers repeats, and entertaining each other with farting displays. Thanks to massive doses of hormonal growth promoter and anti-biotics, Banger is happy at last and finding his feet as a handsome young cock pheasant.

In a series of flashbacks we now learn what a miserable human being he had been, falling out with his only child, Victoria, whom he’d never even put his arms around. This animal-loving woman is now penniless and, since Banger’s death, living with her illegitimate son in a mildewed caravan in a farmyard.

A few miles away, her horribly rich hedge-fund manager uncle — do we need to know he wears monogrammed velvet slippers? — has already ripped the fire-places out of her old home, studded its ceilings with tungsten halogen spotlights and filled house and garden with artworks by Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn and Antony Gormley. And, of course, got rid of Banger’s dogs.

But dogs, as we all know, are clever, quicker on the scent than humans, and in a beautiful sub-plot soon discover who and what actually caused the fatal shooting accident.

Meanwhile, Banger has escaped from the pheasant factory. On discovering the fun of flying, all his former ordeals pale into insignificance. He lives happily off daddy-long-legs, woodlice and the odd ‘gloriously fat’ worm, reads his own obit in a discarded Daily Telegraph, gets attacked by a sparrow hawk, shot in the wing and is finally rescued by an 11-year-old girl called Amy, who takes him back to her semi-detached home in a Chester suburb.

Here, his real transformation begins. Deeply touched by Amy’s relationship with her dying father, Banger’s pent-up anger pours away and he hops across the carpet to console her. Suddenly surging with love for his own lost child and grandson, he remembers he’s left a new will, written the day before his death, clipped behind the visor in the dirty old Landrover now beside his daughter’s caravan. At long last, Banger decides to set matters right.

The author of this complex morality tale scatters shots in all directions. He scratches and claws at contemporary art, the National Trust, the royal family, the police, animal rights activists and other do-gooders. He paints a scary picture of old and new sporting regimes, the ‘restrained dandyism’ of the old shooting fraternity and even manages a passing reference to the ‘six-lane ferocity’ of the M54 at rush hour.

For pheasants themselves he has unqualified respect, reminding us that the ancestral lands of these ‘flying dartboards’ once stretched from Kashmir to Thailand. With or without their help, the narrative builds to a satisfyingly violent climax. Whatever one makes of the mixture, this is a bloody brilliant book.