I’ve always been drawn to Cornish fiction – partly due to the sheer volume of holidays to Cornwall I had in my childhood, and the love I have for the area, and also partly due to the fact that Cornwall is an incredibly atmospheric setting. Zed and the Cormorants has a simultaneously claustrophobic and magical setting in a Cornish town that fits the narrative beautifully, and satisfies my love for gothic Cornish fiction. This was undoubtedly my favourite element of the book, as it was beautifully and hauntingly delivered.
Having moved to Cornwall on a whim of her father, Zed is thrust into a small neighbourhood that contains an eclectic cast of charming characters, a beautiful natural surrounding area, and a bizarrely large number of cormorants: large black sea birds with long beaks and piercing eyes. The more Zed and her family get settled in, the more ominous the presence of these birds becomes, to the point where she’s constantly afraid they’ll attack her. This eerie behaviour prompts an obsession with the cormorants, and as her family’s luck worsens, Zed finds herself investigating the town’s past with the birds to see if there is a connection between the two. The result is an intriguing mystery full of atmosphere and magical realism, with the presence of the cormorants adding a sense of foreboding and danger that propels the narrative forward wonderfully, especially as things start to go wrong.
The family dynamic in Zed’s household is complex, and serves as an equally interesting storyline alongside the mystery. Zed has a lot to deal with at home: the abominable attitude of her sister, Amy, who is missing her toxic boyfriend; their mother’s fragile mental health; and their father’s questionable dedication to his newfound passion for baking. To make things worse, her best friend from her old home is acting distant – though striking up a friendship with local woman Cordelia does lesson the blow. As does befriending local girl Tamsin, especially as there begin to be suggestions their friendship could develop into something more. Each character is well-rounded and three-dimensional, and they all play their own role in helping Zed uncover the mystery of the cormorants, and provide some lovely moments of relief to the creepier sections. Zed herself is an endearing, smart protagonist; she certainly goes through a lot, but is courageous and kind-hearted at every turn, making her a delight to read about. The relationships she has with her family members are raw and realistic; the sibling camaraderie was a particular highlight, as in spite of the things Amy has been through, she is always there for her sister.
The overall atmosphere of the book is the star of the show, and I’ve been thinking about the creepy cormorants non-stop since finishing it. The Cornish folklore and mythology that the book quotes creates a genuine gothic tone that is hard to find in YA nowadays, and the quirky characters and unsettling, slow-build mystery add exciting layers to the tale. The writing is also incredibly accomplished; while the book is perfectly suited for the young end of YA, the writing style is so evocative that any fans of gothic fiction would appreciate it. Clare Owen is a very talented writer, and I’m so excited to see what she does next.