Tag Archives: Alejandro Zambra

20 Books of Summer, 8–10: Marram, Orchid Summer, and Bonsai

Halfway through my flora-themed reading challenge with less than half of the summer left to go. However, I’m actually partway through another seven relevant reads, so I’m confident I’ll get to 20. The sticking point for me, as always, is finishing what I’ve started!

Today I have brief responses to the two nature/travel quest memoirs I took with me to the Outer Hebrides, plus a forthcoming Chilean novella about how a relationship is to be memorialized.

 

Marram: Memories of Sea and Spider Silk by Leonie Charlton (2020)

I think I’d already downloaded this to my Kindle when I saw Charlton interviewed by the Bookshop Band on their breakfast-time variety show during the 2020 online Wigtown Book Festival. In 2017, Charlton and her friend Shuna undertook a three-week pony trek through the Outer Hebrides. Like many, they worked their way south to north, starting at Barra and finishing on Lewis (we travelled in the opposite direction on our recent trip).

Marram grass on a Benbecula beach.

Although it was a low-key fundraising project for her daughter’s traditional music school, for Charlton there was another underlying reason. Her difficult mother, a jewellery maker, had died of brain cancer seven years before, and she had the idea of leaving beads from her mum’s collection (she’d actually nicknamed her daughter “Beady,” though for her eyes) along the route to lay her and their complicated relationship to rest. As one of her mother’s friends put it, “She was a nightmare, and wonderful, and totally impossible.”

I enjoyed the blend of topics – the amazing scenery, the rigours of the trail, the kindness of acquaintances and strangers who gave them places to camp and graze the ponies, and painful memories – and probably got more out of it because I was reading on location. Her regrets about her mother formed a larger part of the book than expected, but that wasn’t a problem for me; you might steer clear if this would be triggering, though. (Read via NetGalley)

 

Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by Jon Dunn (2018)

Dunn saw all but one of Britain’s native species of orchid (51–55, depending on how you count; subspecies are still being debated) between the spring and autumn of 2016; only the ghost orchid eluded him. He alternates between his whistlestop travels, the backstory to his nature obsession, and the historical and cultural associations with orchids. “I was rapidly learning that orchids exert an influence unlike any other plant upon those who fall under their spell, he writes” (in that vein, I also recommend Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief).

I most enjoyed the chapters set in North Uist – where he goes to find the Hebridean marsh orchid – and his adopted home of Shetland; it’s always fun to read about somewhere I am or have been before (also including Lindisfarne). The number-driven quest seems like a peculiarly male undertaking, e.g. the similar The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham, and orchids in particular are surrounded by secrecy – you have to be in the know to locate rarities, which often seem to be in roadside ditches. Dunn evades potential accusations of elitism or machismo, though, by recounting vulnerable moments: when he inadvertently strayed onto a golf course and got verbally abused; when some lads stopped their car to harass him.

A marsh orchid at Balranald nature reserve, North Uist.

In general, this is denser with information than all but the keenest amateur botanists need, so I didn’t engage with it as much as his book about hummingbirds, The Glitter in the Green, but Dunn is a top-class nature and travel writer who really brings places and species to life on the page through his enthusiastic descriptions. Still, I wish this could have been illustrated with colour plates, as the author is an equally accomplished photographer. (Public library)

 

Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (2006; 2022)

[Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell]

“In Emilia and Julio’s story … there are more omissions than lies, and fewer omissions than truths”

These college students’ bond is primarily physical, with an overlay of intellectual pretentiousness: they read to each other from the likes of Proust before they go to bed. Zambra, a Chilean poet and fiction writer, zooms in and out to spotlight each one’s other connections with friends and lovers and presage how the past will lead to separate futures. Already we see Julio thinking about how this time-limited relationship will be remembered in memory and in writing. The plot of a story Zambra references in this allusion-heavy work, “Tantalia” by Macedonio Fernández, provides the title: a couple buy a small plant to signify their love, but realize that maybe wasn’t a great idea given that plants can die.

Tending a bonsai is like writing, thinks Julio. Writing is like tending a bonsai, Julio thinks.

At scarcely 60 pages, with plenty of blank space between sections, this feels most like a short story. Bonsai symbolism aside, I didn’t find much to latch onto. Zambra is playing literary games here – “Let’s say her name is or was Emilia and that his name is, was, and will be Julio,” he writes in the first paragraph – and indulging an appetite for metafiction. Drawing attention to the arbitrary nature of creation made this feel generic and soulless, like the author wasn’t committed to or fond of his characters and their story. This wasn’t my cup of tea, but fans of Open Water and Normal People who also love spare writing in translation might enjoy it.

With thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review. Bonsai will be published on August 17th.