‘A life’s work’ – Nudge Books reviews The Death of an Owl

Political dark comedy, an enjoyable swansong for Torday.

I was sad to hear the news of Paul Torday’s death, and the poignant story that his son had completed his last novel before publication. I’ve loved the other Torday books I’ve read and wanted to see his final piece. At no point in reading did I think “There, that’s where he stopped”, I got to the end and realised I’d finished without spotting a join, or noticing a change in style, tone or direction. It is very well done, and a very engaging story. Quite a way to finish.

I’m often dubious about political books, I tend to glaze over if they get too technical, however this kept me interested from start to finish with its slow build up to the event of the title and the far-reaching consequences (reminded me of the gradual all-encompassing Mr Tickel scandal from The Thick of It).

Starting from their college days, we meet Charles Frayne at Oxford, in the middle of his studies as he meets the enigmatic and brilliant Andrew Langford. Going their separate ways, we then follow Charles on a career ladder that takes decades to rise from writing hack to respected political advisor (a fascinating journey in itself, through 1980s Britain). The two meet again before Langford prepares for a fight for party leadership and a shot at becoming Prime Minister.

But then, of course, is The Incident. A barn owl flies into their car, the owl dies, Andrew Langford (on a Wildlife preservation committee) does not report it. You can guess that the story does not stay buried. Though you might not be able to guess just how the story comes back to bite him. Who would be pulled into a possible scandal?

I loved the structure, with a long build up to present day through Charles’s adolescent years, his meeting of a woman to be important to both men, the social-historical background I remember vaguely from my own childhood, even the political narrative.

Andrew, I never felt I really knew – he’s very much a Tony Blair (“one may smile and smile and be a villain”) – a politician forever, whose mask never really slips. Charles – who we can identify with – takes both a back seat to the story of the owl and the Prime Minister and has his own life story: his career, faltering marriage, his own choices to make about honesty and the good of the country. The ladies of the story I didn’t feel came across as strongly – it felt like a man’s world, they either got on with their own lives or complemented their husband’s.

As for the owl storyline, I wonder how much influence Piers had on the ending? It did feel, in retrospect, as though he may have had control there. I quite enjoyed the arc of the story, the ultimate final resting place of Andrew’s scandal, it felt both outrageously ridiculous and also just.

Rather fascinating tale, enjoyed the whole story (it may feel a little slow to some readers, but I loved the period detail and background), and as a swansong (I can’t really think of an owl-related descriptor!), it’s worthy of its primary author.

Katy Noyes
Personal 5
Group 5

Read the review at Nudge Books here.