The nature writer and literary critic Richard Smyth’s new novel is an unusual and enticing beast, reminiscent of the early work of John Fowles. The setting and characters are painted with precision and flair, which makes up for the occasionally meandering parts of the narrative. The story is set in the 1920s. The protagonist, Jon Lowell, is a middle-class naturalist who has moved to the fictional northern coastal town of Gravely with his much-adored wife, Harriet. His idyll is disrupted first by the visit of an old school friend, the acclaimed novelist David McAllister, and subsequently by the arrival of an American family, the Shakes. The father, Maurice Shakes, lives up to the family name: he proposes to drag Gravely into the modern era by building tourist attractions. But a complex romantic and social dynamic begins to reveal itself.
The Woodcock’s greatest strength is Smyth’s evocation of place and nature, which is imbued with a compelling sense of closely observed realism. If the human drama never entirely catches fire in comparison, then this may be the point. Like in a Terrence Malick film, the beauty and complexity of