Mills, Magnus. 2011. A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (London: Bloomsbury), 978-1408821206, 276 pages
The empire of Fallowfield is run by a cabinet of seemingly newly-elected ministers who are waiting for their ruler to return. They stall for time, each getting used to the new roles they’ve got, each aware that they’ve no relevant qualifications or experience to perform their function. The unnamed narrator, The Principal Composer to the Imperial Court, allows his first violinist to undertake the actual work, while he himself helps the Court Astronomer, who is having trouble with identifying stars and planets. One day a puff of smoke is spotted in the distance. A railway is being built, and Fallowfield is about to have visitors for the first time in an age.
Mills’ latest novel is a delicate thing, one level another study of routine going awry and of an escalating comedy of errors. At another level there’s a critique of imperial ambitions and hubris, with the rather Victorian English Fallowfield threatened by the advancing deputation of the somewhat more modern and industrialised (and American) City of Scoffers, with their paying jobs, funny currency and mechanised transport systems. There are whiffs of Borges, of Italo Calvino, of Samuel Beckett and Tony Hancock here, but the overall effect is distinctive and unique. I’m not sure if it’s an ideal entry point if you’ve not read Mills before (try The Restraint of Beasts or The Maintenance of Headway), but if you appreciate his writing and worldview you’ll not be disappointed here.