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''It began for Basil "Banger" Peyton-Crumbe the day he died in a pheasant shooting incident''.
If you were in any doubt as to the nature of the novel given the cover jacket and the author's disclaimer to the effect that any similarity between the human characters and any real person is entirely coincidental, but he feels safe from any threats of libel action on behalf of the dead animals whose characters he has mercilessly manipulated for narrative effect, then its opening sentence should put you straight.
It is all going to be a trifle silly.
Banger Peyton-Crumbe is (was) an aristocrat of the old order. He lived in the big house, had done his duty by the estate by marrying and siring a child – sadly a daughter, who even more sadly turned out to be an animal lover, but that wasn't really his fault. There's a grandson who might be salvageable. He was the kind of person for whom these estates were designed. He had no interest in money. What he didn't need sat in a current account earning zero interest, the rest he spent keeping up the estate, improving the estate, and in his own way he took a fairly ecological stance on things. Not animal-welfare orientated, but some of the side-effects might not have been downright cruel.
His dogs were looked after so long as they worked. Some of them even after they'd stopped working. None of them were allowed to suffer for long.
His passion was shooting. He ran one of the best pheasant shoots in the country. He ran it the old way. A limited number of birds, allowed a fighting chance. A shoot, not a slaughterhouse.
On such a shoot, he is shot.
Technically, he shoots himself – he's holding the gun, it misfires, he dies.
But he's not the type to mismanage a shotgun, or its loading. Is there more to this than meets the eye? The police don't think so. The police dog does.
For Crumbe though, life is going to get even more interesting. He isn't dead long. He is promptly reincarnated.
As a pheasant.
Meanwhile, his image-conscious city-rich half-brother takes over the estate with his utterly crass girlfriend and her manipulative indulged feline, while the disinherited daughter with her stroppy teenage son and mixture of dogs is forced out of the estate cottage into a rancid caravan.
However, it seems that this might not have been what Banger had intended.
There is more than a touch of the Tom Sharpe's about what follows. Of course it is very silly. Talking animals, conveniently placed newspapers, dim-witted coppers (and brutal ones), political activists and simple caring children. Coincidence played and battered into submission.
But it is humourous. Not laugh-out-loud funny for my taste but smirkily, smilingly, chucklingly amusing.
All of the human characters are extreme stereotypes, and all are cruelly pulled down to size. The animals fare better… although some of them are 'no better than they ought to be'. There's a woodland sequence of pheasant rearing that owes a debt of credit to Lord & Parks' brilliant "Chicken Run". The dogs investigate the crime. Banger survives with a memory of his former life and retains his passion for the shoot, even from the other side of the fence, but gradually becomes a more human character for all his feathers, until the memory begins to fade.
It's a lightweight book and most certainly not to everyone's taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed ''Bird Brain''.
What sets it apart from any other flippant comic novel is that buried in all the ridiculous frivolity and dime-a-dozen detecting there are some valid points about the nature of country estates and the whole shooting business.
It is a business these days: I'm guessing that there are few estates that could afford to run what Banger would call a proper shoot. Kennaway doesn't shy away from this, but he sets out as his background the two extremes of running a managed shooting estate and pretty well invites the reader to figure out where the line should be drawn.
There are those whose management consists of providing what would be natural habitat, stocking it with birds, protecting them to adulthood (but only just) and allowing them to live and breed and feed as they can find and finds the sport in actually having birds that can fly well and only as many as would naturally (more or less) survive in the area of ground covered. Then there are those that overstock, feed the birds into indolence, producing mass flocks that can barely get airborne, don't understand the threat and are pretty difficult to miss. There are shoots where you need to be able to shoot. And shoots where you scarcely need to know which end of the gun to point. There are shoots which expect the fallen birds to be eaten; and those which end up land-filling them because there are so many carcases of such poor quality so badly shot up they can't even be turned into cheap pâté.
There is, Kennaway suggests beneath his narrative, a difference. Maybe, he suggests, we shouldn't be absolutist and abolitionist in our approach and should (as we try to do with other kinds of farming) find a balance.
Of course, you could just ignore all that and read for the thrill of whether the dog will get his man.
Published in hardback by Jonathan Cape ISBN 9780224093996 Pages 287 Cover price Ł14.99
This review first appeared on thebookbag.co.uk to whom I'm grateful for the review copy.
(c) Lesley Mason
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