Let me say immediately that this book is not for everyone. There's no car chases, not really any suspense (unless you count the search for where mother Mandarin duck laid her eggs), and no wild characters (except for the hares that speed through occasionally). But, for those of us who crave a little calm, this book is relaxing and appealing.
Ansell is a journalist, and he craves isolation as well. He's also precise in describing, for the most part, the types of birds that frequent the area and their breeding habits, even conducting a survey of species and totals.
A few of the birds I didn't recognize by their UK names, so I had to Google them for pictures. All of his descriptions of their stealth and means of throwing off predators is fascinating. Lots of facts are sprinkled in, such as how bats can live thirty years and return to their roosts the entire time.
Yet the book isn't just about what he sees outside the decrepit cottage, but what he sees inside himself. After a health scare, he observes:
"What remains if you peel away all those things that help you think you know who you are? If one by one you strip away your cultural choices, the validation you get from the company of your peer group, the tools you use for communication? Then what is left behind? If you had asked me that three or four years earlier, when I was just arriving at Penlan, I imagine that I would have guessed: your true self. But I soon found that in fact I rapidly became less and less self-aware; my attention was elsewhere, on the outside. And now that circumstances had forced me to look inward once again, it was to discover that there was perhaps no fixed self to find. So what was there instead? Now, more than ever, I had the sense that my life was no so very different from that of the birds fluttering on my bird-feeder, as though a boundary between us had been broken" (188).
I think this would be an amazing audiobook (Martin Shaw or Alan Rickman on the voice, please!) because the subject matter is soothing. When I went through a recent health scare, often it was suggested I use visualization to relax, especially during a few procedures that were without anesthetic. The nurses all said, "picture a long, sandy beach at sunset....". Nope, in the future I'll picture a rainy cottage with a wild-eyed rabbit perched on the back step and through the fog, a tree covered with yellow birds.
Very special thanks to Hamish Hamilton Books, an imprint of Penguin UK for the Review Copy.