Novel voice for Norfolk

Author Edward Parnell who has written a nature themed novel called The Listeners, pictured at NWT Lo

Author Edward Parnell who has written a nature themed novel called The Listeners, pictured at NWT Lower Wood at Ashwellthorpe. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

The natural world brims in birdsong, birth, betrayal, decay and death from the pages of Edward Parnell’s Norfolk-set novel, writes Rowan Mantell.

Deep in the Norfolk woods, far enough in to filter the sounds of the outside world, and fade sunlight to mottled gloom, and feel almost lost and slightly spooked, Edward Parnell discovered his story and characters.

In the long tradition of writers who bring a landscape to life so vividly that it haunts the whole of their work, he has given a voice to the tree-tangled, insect-throbbing, nettle-snared countryside of deepest Norfolk.

Edward worked for conservation charities, and on wildlife television programmes, before becoming a writer, and it shows in every paragraph of his first novel, The Listeners.

The book is set in and around an imagined village between Swaffham and King’s Lynn, much like East Walton, where his grandparents lived, and where Edward spent childhood days wandering the woods and meadows, learning the calls of birds, the shapes of leaves and the life cycles of plants and animals.

“I grew up in Spalding, in the Fens, which is a very different landscape and which is, I think, why I was so drawn to the woods where my nan lived,” he says. Today he lives in Wymondham, and it was a nearby nature reserve alive with water voles and orchids, and in Ashwellthorpe Woods, and Wayland Wood, near Watton, that he researched his novel.

It is set in 1940, in the wake of a series of local secrets and tragedies which are slowly and obliquely revealed, and at the start of a war which is gradually encroaching upon the isolated village and its inhabitants. The story is told through many watching eyes, but the main character is a child so attuned to the natural world that he explains the tangled lives of his parents and sisters and fellow villagers through what he knows of nature.

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“Nature is William’s way of making sense of the world. People don’t make a lot of sense to him but nature does,” says Edward, who began writing the book while studying for an MA on the University of East Anglia’s renowned creative writing course. After a series of what he calls “nice rejections” he entered a competition to have his work published by Gorleston-based Rethink Press – and won. Now Edward is enjoying his first taste of being a published novelist, as well as working as a freelance editor and copywriter.

The Listeners, named for a Walter de la Mare poem of silent spirits haunting an abandoned house, has already garnered praise from leading Norfolk authors such as nature writer Mark Cocker. Next comes a second book, and Edward will be venturing further afield with both the Australian outback and the Arctic in the running.

Words and the natural world have always worked together for 41-year-old Edward, who was a communications manager for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, has written magazine and newspaper nature articles and worked on television wildlife documentaries. He is also co-artistic director, with poet Moniza Alvi, of the annual Wymondham Words literary festival, which will be held in October this year.

But the main character of The Listeners is a boy who does not speak, who watches, and who listens – to a landscape teeming with life and death and swimming with submerged memories. In his first novel Edward Parnell reveals a new voice for the wildness of rural Norfolk. ?

The Listeners is published by Rethink Press, price £9.99.

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