If I were to mention birdwatching, I bet the first thing to pop into your mind would be an image of someone in stout shoes, waterproof clothing and a warm hat. To complete the scene you might want to throw in a tripod a thermos flask and some binoculars.
If so, then Ross Armstrong’s debut novel The Watcher probably isn’t the sort of book you’d expect about a birdwatcher.
Lily, the central character is indeed a birdwatcher and yes, she has binoculars. But living in a block of flats in north London the opportunities for watching our feathered friends are limited, so she directs her gaze on those living in the building opposite, a block due for demolition.
She views her neighbours across the way and imagines their lives. Harmless enough until one day one of them is discovered dead after Lily has seen something suspicious. As she considers how much she should get involved, it becomes apparent that she too is being watched.
Armstrong has given the narrator a distinctive voice, but it’s one that took me quite a few pages to tune into. It sometimes feels a bit like reading a series of particularly long diary entries. There are long diversions into subjects which appear to have no connection to the narrative which can make it it hard to focus on exactly where it’s all heading.
But if this is a book that requires concentration on behalf of the reader, that’s no bad thing. It’s been compared to both Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the publishing phenomenon turned film that is The Girl on Train.
Stick with it and this is a book that draws you into a disturbing yet familiar world with a plot that gathers pace.