Mike McCarthy, former Environment Editor for the Independent, has several nature books to his credit and, for me, this one tops the list. Unlike his earlier books, this one is a novel, but fiction is the perfect vehicle for addressing the monumentally difficult ethical question this book addresses. To say that this is a love story is both accurate and potentially misleading. Certainly, there is a human love story here, but the main thread is also the love between a man and a bird. The ethical question is what one would do if, like Fergus, the central character, one discovered a colony of birds thought to be extinct?
Once massively abundant, the Great Auk Pinguinus impennis became extinct in the first few days of June 1844. The last two birds, breeding on a small stack off Iceland’s southwest coast, were murdered by men paid to provide biological specimens for museums. Inevitably perhaps, for this was a long-lived bird that probably did not start breeding until it was six or seven years old, there were some subsequent reports: in the decade after 1844, Great Auks were allegedly seen in Ireland, Newfoundland and Arctic Norway, though none of the sightings were especially convincing.
McCarthy has written a compelling, well-researched story. The main characters include an overly ambitious scientist, a woman he hopes will be his partner, and a man hell-bent on protecting the colony of Great Auks he has discovered. Few birds are so majestic, charismatic and iconic as the Great Auk, and McCarthy’s story has the grandeur and poignancy of a disaster movie. As I read, I found myself imagining it in exactly this way.
Sadly, there are no Great Auks still alive. The bird really has gone. But there are other species currently thought to be extinct that may yet re-emerge. For them (and for us) the issues raised by this extremely readable book are incredibly important.