Former Notts’ council estate lad Stephan Collishaw is now firmly back in Nottingham after living abroad spending some time in Lithuania. His first novel, The Last Girl, was about an elderly, impoverished poet in Vilnius, and he’s returned to the same part of the world for his latest book, this time set during the early ‘40s. The Nottingham school teacher’s new release is called The Song of the Stork. Here’s the NottsLit review:
The Song of the Stork tells the story of a teenage girl called Yael who’s on the run/hiding from Nazi Germans. After a companion falls to the harsh environment she’s forced to find shelter as winter kicks. She hides in a chicken coop on the grounds of an isolated farm. The coop belongs to a cottage that’s home to Aleksei, an outcast, thought of as an idiot by some on account of him being mute. It’s unclear if his lack of speech is physical or psychological but he soon becomes aware of the fifteen-year-old hiding nearby. Aleksei is, understandably, reluctant to help as harbouring anyone Jewish is punishable by death. He even leaves a Nazi pamphlet in sight of Yael to show her the law and its warning. Despite their fears, Aleksei and Yael grow close, and as their relationship blossoms his kindness and sensitivity become evident. Actions not words maketh the man. And yet, words are hugely important to our mute hero. They may not fall from his lips but the written word is his thing, a pastime he touchingly shares with Yael. The lack of two-way oral conversation may even have its advantages for her. Who better to help hide you than a man of solitary existence who can’t gossip or talk of your whereabouts? No loose lips here.
Yael is our protagonist, the story is told by her, the hope is hers. There’s an innocence to Yael that’s reflected in Collishaw’s accessible, spare prose, a normalcy too; in ways she’s a typical teenager but one put in an extreme position. Her own will to survive is tested and it’s only the drive to hear from her brother Josef that keeps her fighting. This hope is joined by the wish to be reunited with Aleksei as the second half of the book sees them parted. Yael is forced to join a group of partisans in the forest where she continues to come of age. They are fighting a war in which there seems no possible victory as defeating the Nazi threat will only bring conflict with Stalin and the Red Army. The only future seems to be, as the stork flies, the way of Palestine as the prospect of a new state suddenly looks appealing.
There is more action in the second half as the partisans live in the woods but Daniel Craig’s film Defiance this is not. A lack of set pieces however doesn’t slow the page turning. It’s an easy read of a hard history, in part due to the world being seen through Yael’s eyes. When the holocaust is told via a young individual’s experience the living in fear and the horror is telling. The persecution of any individual for no reason other than their religion or race is abhorrent and, incredibly, as relevant today. That it’s 2017 and people are still being killed because of labels attached to them is a strong reason to keep revisiting history. We may not be learning from the warnings of the past but we can’t be allowed to forget them.
The Song of the Stork is full of humanity, hope and smart metaphors. Many of the loose ends and plot threads are ultimately left untied in a way fitting of contemporary literary fiction, and of life itself.