Sarah Moss’s latest three releases have all been of novella length. I reviewed Ghost Wall for Novellas in November in 2018, and Summerwater in August 2020. In this trio, she’s demonstrated a fascination with what happens when people of diverging backgrounds and opinions are thrown together in extreme circumstances. Moss almost stops time as her effortless third-person omniscient narration moves from one character’s head to another. We feel that we know each one’s experiences and motivations from the inside. Whereas Ghost Wall was set in two weeks of a late-1980s summer, Summerwater and now the taut The Fell have pushed that time compression even further, spanning a day and about half a day, respectively.
A circadian narrative holds a lot of appeal – we’re all tantalized, I think, by the potential difference that one day can make. The particular day chosen as the backdrop for The Fell offers an ideal combination of the mundane and the climactic because it was during the UK’s November 2020 lockdown. On top of that blanket restriction, single mum Kate has been exposed to Covid-19 via a café colleague, so she and her teenage son Matt are meant to be in strict two-week quarantine. Except Kate can’t bear to be cooped up one minute longer and, as dusk falls, she sneaks out of their home in the Peak District National Park to climb a nearby hill. She knows this fell like the back of her hand, so doesn’t bother taking her phone.
Over the next 12 hours or so, we dart between four stream-of-consciousness internal monologues: besides Kate and Matt, the two main characters are their neighbour, Alice, an older widow who has undergone cancer treatment; and Rob, part of the volunteer hill rescue crew sent out to find Kate when she fails to return quickly. For the most part – as befits the lockdown – each is stuck in their solitary musings (Kate regrets her marriage, Alice reflects on a bristly relationship with her daughter, Rob remembers a friend who died up a mountain), but there are also a few brief interactions between them. I particularly enjoyed time spent with Kate as she sings religious songs and imagines a raven conducting her inquisition.
What Moss wants to do here, is done well. My misgiving is to do with the recycling of an identical approach from Summerwater – not just the circadian limit, present tense, no speech marks and POV-hopping, but also naming each short chapter after a random phrase from it. Another problem is one of timing. Had this come out last November, or even this January, it might have been close enough to events to be essential. Instead, it seems stuck in a time warp. Early on in the first lockdown, when our local arts venue’s open mic nights had gone online, one participant made a semi-professional music video for a song with the refrain “everyone’s got the same jokes.”
That’s how I reacted to The Fell: baking bread and biscuits, a family catch-up on Zoom, repainting and clearouts, even obsessive hand-washing … the references were worn out well before a draft was finished. Ironic though it may seem, I feel like I’ve found more cogent commentary about our present moment from Moss’s historical work. Yet I’ve read all of her fiction and would still list her among my favourite contemporary writers. Aspiring creative writers could approach the Summerwater/The Fell duology as a masterclass in perspective, voice and concise plotting. But I hope for something new from her next book.
With thanks to Picador for the free copy for review.
The Wainwright Prize is one that I’ve ended up following closely almost by accident, simply because I tend to read most of the nature books released in the UK in any given year. A few months back I cheekily wrote to the prize director, proffering myself as a judge and appending a list of eligible titles I hoped were in consideration. Although they already had a full judging roster for 2021, I got a very kind reply thanking me for my recommendations and promising to bear me in mind for the future. Fifteen of my 25 suggestions made it onto the lists below.
This is the second year that there have been two awards, one for writing on UK nature and the other on global conservation themes. Tomorrow (August 4th) at 4 p.m., the longlists will be narrowed down to shortlists. I happened to have read and reviewed 12 of the nominees already, and I have a few others in progress.
UK nature writing longlist:
The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access. (On my Best of 2021 so far list.)
The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy. (Also on my Best of 2021 so far list.)
Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour: As an aimless twentysomething, Gilmour tried to rekindle a relationship with his unreliable poet father at the same time that he and his wife were pondering starting a family of their own. Meanwhile, he was raising Benzene, a magpie that fell out of the nest and ended up in his care. The experience taught him responsibility and compassionate care for another creature. Gilmour makes elegant use of connections and metaphors. He’s so good at scenes, dialogue and emotion – a natural writer.
Seed to Dust by Marc Hamer: Hamer paints a loving picture of his final year at the 12-acre British garden he tended for decades. In few-page essays, the book journeys through a gardener’s year. This is creative nonfiction rather than straightforward memoir. The prose is adorned with lovely metaphors. In places, the language edges towards purple and the content becomes repetitive – a danger of the diary format. However, the focus on emotions and self-perception – rare for a male nature writer – is refreshing. (Reviewed for Foreword.)
The Stubborn Light of Things by Melissa Harrison: A collection of five and a half years’ worth of Harrison’s monthly Nature Notebook columns for The Times. Initially based in South London, Harrison moved to the Suffolk countryside in late 2017. In the grand tradition of Gilbert White, she records when she sees her firsts of a year. I appreciate how hands-on and practical Harrison is. She never misses an opportunity to tell readers about ways they can create habitat for wildlife and get involved in citizen science projects. (Reviewed for Shiny New Books.)
Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt: During the UK’s first lockdown, with planes grounded and cars stationary, many remarked on the quiet. All the better to hear birds going about their usual spring activities. For Lovatt, it was the excuse he needed to return to his childhood birdwatching hobby. In between accounts of his spring walks, he tells lively stories of common birds’ anatomy, diet, lifecycle, migration routes, and vocalizations. Lovatt’s writing is introspective and poetic, delighting in metaphors for sounds.
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald: Though written for various periodicals and ranging in topic from mushroom-hunting to deer–vehicle collisions and in scope from deeply researched travel pieces to one-page reminiscences, these essays form a coherent whole. Equally reliant on argument and epiphany, the book has more to say about human–animal interactions in one of its essays than some whole volumes manage. Her final lines are always breath-taking. I’d rather read her writing on any subject than almost any other author’s. (My top nonfiction release of 2020.)
Skylarks with Rosie by Stephen Moss: Devoting a chapter each to the first 13 weeks of the initial UK lockdown, Moss traces the season’s development in Somerset alongside his family’s experiences and what was emerging on the national news. He welcomed migrating birds and marked his first sightings of butterflies and other insects. Nature came to him, too. For once, he felt that he had truly appreciated the spring, noting its every milestone and “rediscovering the joys of wildlife-watching close to home.”
Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh: I received a proof copy from Canongate and twice tried the first few pages, but couldn’t wade through the excessive lyricism (and downright incorrect information – weaving a mystical description of a Winter Moth’s flight, she keeps referring to the creature as “she,” whereas when I showed the passage to my entomologist husband he told me that the females of that species are flightless). I’m told it develops into an eloquent memoir of growing up during the Troubles. Perhaps reminiscent of The Outrun?
Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian: A delightfully Bryson-esque tour that moves ever outwards, starting with the author’s own home and garden and proceeding to take in his South London patch and his journeys around the British Isles before closing with the wonders of the night sky. By slowing down to appreciate what is all around us, he proposes, we might enthuse others to engage with nature. With the zeal of a recent convert, he guides readers through momentous sightings and everyday moments of connection. (When I reviewed this in July 2020, I correctly predicted it would make the longlist!)
English Pastoral by James Rebanks: This struck me for its bravery, good sense and humility. The topics of the degradation of land and the dangers of intensive farming are of the utmost importance. Daring to undermine his earlier work and his online persona, the author questions the mythos of modern farming, contrasting its practices with the more sustainable and wildlife-friendly ones his grandfather espoused. Old-fashioned can still be best if it means preserving soil health, river quality and the curlew population.
I Belong Here by Anita Sethi: I recently skimmed this from the library. Two things are certain: 1) BIPOC writers should appear more frequently on prize lists, so it’s wonderful that Sethi is here; 2) this book was poorly put together. It’s part memoir of an incident of racial abuse, part political manifesto, and part quite nice travelogue. The parts don’t make a whole. The contents are repetitive and generic (definitions, overstretched metaphors). Sethi had a couple of strong articles here, not a whole book. I blame her editors for not eliciting better.
The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn: I only skimmed this, too. I got the feeling her publisher was desperate to capitalize on the popularity of her first book and said “give us whatever you have,” cramming drafts of several different projects (a memoir that went deeper into the past, a ‘what happened next’ sequel to The Salt Path, and an Iceland travelogue) into one book and rushing it through to publication. Winn’s writing is still strong, though; she captures dialogue and scenes naturally, and you believe in how much the connection to the land matters to her.
Global conservation longlist:
Like last year, I’ve read much less from this longlist since I gravitate more towards nature writing and memoirs than to hard or popular science. So I have read, am reading or plan to read about half of this list, as opposed to pretty much all of the other one.
Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn: This was on my Most Anticipated list for 2021 and I treated myself to a copy while we were up in Northumberland. I’m nearly a third of the way through this fascinating, well-written tour of places where nature has spontaneously regenerated due to human neglect: depleted mining areas in Scotland, former conflict zones, Soviet collective farms turned feral, sites of nuclear disaster, and so on. I’m about to start the chapter on Chernobyl, which I expect to echo Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse.
What If We Stopped Pretending? by Jonathan Franzen: The message of this controversial 2019 New Yorker essay is simple: climate breakdown is here, so stop denying it and talking of “saving the planet”; it’s too late. Global warming is locked in; the will is not there to curb growth, overhaul economies, and ask people to relinquish developed world lifestyles. Instead, start preparing for the fallout (refugees) and saving what can be saved (particular habitats and species). Franzen is realistic about human nature and practical about what to do next.
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake: Sheldrake’s enthusiasm is infectious as he researches fungal life in the tropical forests of Panama, accompanies truffle hunters in Italy, and takes part in a clinical study on the effects of LSD (derived from a fungus). More than a travel memoir, though, this is a work of proper science – over 100 pages are taken up by notes, bibliography and index. This is a perspective-altering text that reveals our unconscious species bias. I’ve recommended it widely, even to those who tend not to read nonfiction.
Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham: I have this out from the library and am two-thirds through. Wadham, a leading glaciologist, introduces readers to the science of glaciers: where they are, what lives on and under them, how they move and change, and the grave threats they face (and, therefore, so do we). The science, even dumbed down, is a little hard to follow, but I love experiencing extreme landscapes like Greenland and Antarctica with her. She neatly inserts tiny mentions of her personal life, such as her mother’s death, a miscarriage and a benign brain cyst.
The rest of the longlist is:
- A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough – I’ve never read a book by Attenborough (and tend to worry this sort of book would be ghostwritten), but wouldn’t be averse to doing so.
- Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs – All about whales. Kate raved about it. I have this on hold at the library.
- Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change by Dieter Helm
- Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert – I have read her before and would again.
- Riders on the Storm by Alistair McIntosh – My husband has read several of his books and rates them highly.
- The New Climate War by Michael E. Mann
- The Reindeer Chronicles by Judith D. Schwartz – I’ve been keen to read this one.
- A World on the Wing by Scott Weidensaul – My husband is reading this from the library.
My predictions/wishes for the shortlists:
It’s high time that a woman won again. And why not for both, eh? (Amy Liptrot is still the only female winner in the Prize’s seven-year history, for The Outrun in 2016.)
UK nature writing:
- The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell
- The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster
- Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour
- Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald*
- English Pastoral by James Rebanks
- I Belong Here by Anita Sethi
- The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn
Writing on global conservation:
- Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn*
- Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs
- Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert
- Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
- Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham
- A World on the Wing by Scott Weidensaul
*Overall winners, if I had my way.
Have you read anything from the Wainwright Prize longlists?
Do any of these books interest you?
Two poetry offerings and a short memoir this month. A similar strategy is at work in both verse volumes: Jason Allen-Paisant contrasts Jamaica and England via the medium of trees, and Rob Cowen comments on current events through the prism of the natural world. In Kate Mosse’s first nonfiction book, she reflects on bereavement and caregiving.
Thinking with Trees by Jason Allen-Paisant
Allen-Paisant, from Jamaica and now based in Leeds, describes walking in the forest as an act of “reclamation.” For people of colour whose ancestors were perhaps sent on forced marches, hiking may seem strange, purposeless (the subject of “Black Walking”). Back in Jamaica, the forest was a place of utility rather than recreation:
In Porus life was un-
The woodland was there
not for living in going for walks
Trees were answers to our needs
not objects of desire
But “I give myself permission / to go outside,” he writes, to notice the turning of the seasons, to commune with trees and birds, even if “there is nobody else like me / around here”. Explicitly calling into question Wordsworth’s model of privileged wandering, he injects a hint of threat into his interactions with nature. Most often this is symbolized by the presence of dogs. Even the most idyllic of scenes harbours the possibility of danger.
beware of spring
believe you are
a sprout of grass
and love all you see
but come out of the woods
before the white boys
The poet cites George Floyd and Christian Cooper, the Central Park birder a white woman called the police on, as proof that being Black outdoors is inherently risky. There’s no denying this is an important topic, but I found the poems repetitive, especially the references to dogs. These felt like overkill. While there is some interesting enjambment, as in the first extended quote above, as well as internal and half-rhymes, I tend to prefer more formal poetry that uses more sonic techniques and punctuation. Still, I would be likely to direct fans of Kei Miller’s work to this collection.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
The Heeding by Rob Cowen
This poetry and art collaboration arose out of a “pact to pay attention” during a year of lockdown in the UK and record observations of nature, current events, and everyday life. Cowen is drawn to the moors near his home in Yorkshire, but also yearns to spend time with his friends again. He watches hawks and blue tits, notices the insects that fill his garden, and celebrates the way that allotment gardening brings together all sorts of people.
The emotional scope of the poems is broad: the author fondly remembers his brick-making ancestors and his honeymoon; he sombrely imagines the last moments of an old man dying in a hospital; he expresses guilt over accidentally dismembering an ant, yet divulges that he then destroyed the ants’ nest deliberately. There are even a couple of cheeky, carnal poems, one about a couple of teenagers he caught copulating in the street and one, “The Hottest Day of the Year,” about a longing for touch. “Matter,” in ABAB stanzas, is on the theme of racial justice by way of the Black Lives Matter movement.
My two favourites were “Sunday School,” about the rules for life he’s lived by since leaving religion behind, and “The End of This (Drinking Poem),” which serves as a good-riddance farewell to 2020: “Let me shake off / this year the way the otter / slips out of fast, rising water / and makes the holt just in time … / Let me rid my days of caution and fear, / these protocols and tiers / and Zoom funerals for people I love / and will never see again.” The book is worth the price of admission for the latter alone, and Nick Hayes’s black-and-white woodcut-style engravings are a plus.
However, in general I felt that the balance of current events and nature was off, especially compared to books like The Consolation of Nature, and ultimately I was not convinced that this needed to be in verse at all. “Starling,” especially, feels like a straight knockoff of Robert Macfarlane’s The Lost Words (“We forget that you once shimmered through frozen air, ripple bird. / Shape-shifter, dusk-dancer. Murmurer, sky-writer”). Judging from Cowen’s Common Ground, this would have been more successful as a book of short prose diary entries with a few poems dotted through.
With thanks to Elliott & Thompson for the proof copy for review.
An Extra Pair of Hands: A Story of Caring, Ageing and Everyday Acts of Love by Kate Mosse
Mosse’s parents and mother-in-law all moved in to live with her and her husband in their Chichester home when they reached old age. Her father had Parkinson’s and died in 2011, her mother survived him by a few years, and Granny Rosie is still going (reasonably) strong at the age of 90. This is a compact and relatable account of a daughter’s experiences of caregiving and grief, especially with the recent added complications of a pandemic.
What came through particularly clearly for me was the older generation’s determination to not be a burden: living through the Second World War gave them a sense of perspective, such that they mostly did not complain about their physical ailments and did not expect heroic measures to be made to help them. (Her father knew his condition was “becoming too much” to deal with, and Granny Rosie would sometimes say, “I’ve had enough of me.”) In her father’s case, this was because he held out hope of an afterlife. Although Mosse does not share his religious beliefs, she is glad that he had them as a comfort.
The author recognizes the ways in which she has been lucky: as a full-time writer, she works from home and has the time and energy to devote to caring for elderly parents, whereas for many – generally middle-aged women, who may still have children at home – it is a huge struggle to balance caregiving with the rest of life. What is more, money is no issue for her. Repeating some of the statistics from Madeleine Bunting’s Labours of Love, she acknowledges that the situation is much more challenging for the average person.
I can see how this could serve as a great introduction for someone who hasn’t previously read much about bereavement, caregiving or old age, and I imagine it will especially appeal to existing fans of Mosse’s writing, whereas I was new to her work. I’ve read so much around these topics, including most of the works included in the bibliography, that the book did not offer me anything new, though it was a perfectly pleasant read.
Readalikes I have reviewed:
Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Be With by Mike Barnes
All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay
The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills
With thanks to Profile Books/Wellcome Collection for the free copy for review.
What recent releases can you recommend?
It’s been a gorgeously sunny spring here – how about where you are? Although there have still been some frosty nights troubling the gardeners among us, it’s been warm in the daytime and the flowers and blossom are coming on apace.
Recently I’ve read a couple of books reflecting on the spring of 2020, specifically the opportunities it offered to reconnect with local nature at a time when we were isolated and couldn’t travel.
I’ve also been feeling nostalgic for Washington, D.C. and the Maryland suburbs, where I grew up. It’s been two years since my last trip back, but I’m holding out hope that I can make it over in June for a family wedding.
Rounding out my selection of “Spring” titles is an offbeat Japanese novella.
Looking back to the coronavirus spring:
On Thursday evening I watched “The Act of Nature Watching,” a special Earth Day Zoom talk for West Berkshire Libraries by local nature writer Nicola Chester, whose memoir is coming out in the autumn. The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries, she lamented. We are hardwired to watch and love nature, she noted, yet have never been more alienated from it. Reading from her columns and anthology contributions (as well as the Lovatt, below) and giving tips on recognizing birdsong and mammal signs, she spoke of nature-watching as a form of mindfulness – an approach that chimed with the first three books I feature here.
Birdsong in a Time of Silence: An Awakening by Steven Lovatt (2021)
During the UK’s first lockdown, with planes grounded and cars stationary, many remarked on the quiet. All the better to hear birds going about their usual spring activities. For Lovatt, from Birmingham and now based in South Wales, it was the excuse he needed to return to his childhood birdwatching hobby. In between accounts of his spring walks, he tells lively stories of common birds’ anatomy, diet, lifecycle, migration routes, and vocalizations. (He even gives step-by-step instructions for sounding like a magpie.) Birdsong takes him back to childhood, but feels deeper than that: a cultural memory that enters into our poetry and will be lost forever if we allow our declining bird species to continue on the same trajectory.
Mentions of current events are sparse and subtle, so the spring feels timeless, as it should. I worried there might be too much overlap with A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth, but there’s room for both on your shelf. Lovatt’s writing is introspective and poetic, delighting in metaphors for sounds: “The song of a turtle dove is like the aural equivalent of a heat-haze, the gentlest corrugation of air, always just on the edge of your hearing.”
Skylarks with Rosie: A Somerset Spring by Stephen Moss (2021)
Lovatt must have been a pupil of Moss’s on the Bath Spa University MA degree in Travel and Nature Writing. The prolific Moss’s latest also reflects on the spring of 2020, but in a more overt diary format. Devoting one chapter to each of the 13 weeks of the first lockdown, he traces the season’s development alongside his family’s experiences and the national news. With four of his children at home, along with one of their partners and a convalescing friend, it’s a pleasingly full house. There are daily cycles or walks around “the loop,” a three-mile circuit from their front door, often with Rosie the Labrador; there are also jaunts to corners of the nearby Avalon Marshes. Nature also comes to him, with songbirds in the garden hedges and various birds of prey flying over during their 11:00 coffee breaks.
His speaking engagements and trips cancelled, Moss turns to online events instead. Twitter serves as a place for sharing outrage over UK politics and world events like George Floyd’s murder, but also as a welcoming community for sharing nature sightings. As the lockdown come to a close, he realizes that this time has had unexpected benefits: “Having to press the pause button … has made me rethink my life, in a good way.” He feels that, for once, he has truly appreciated the spring, “rediscovering the joys of wildlife-watching close to home”. This made for perfect reading in Somerset last week.
Also recommended: The Consolation of Nature by Marren, McCarthy and Mynott
Remembering springs back home:
Spring in Washington by Louis J. Halle (1947)
“The discovery of spring each year, after the winter’s hibernation, is like a rediscovery of the universe … knowledge of spring gives me the freedom of the world.”
For Halle, who worked in the State Department, nature was an antidote to hours spent shuffling papers behind a desk. In this spring of 1945, there was plenty of wildfowl to see in central D.C. itself, but he also took long early morning bike rides along the Potomac or the C&O Canal, or in Rock Creek Park. From first migrant in February to last in June, he traces the spring mostly through the birds that he sees. More so than the specific observations of familiar places, though, I valued the philosophical outlook that makes Halle a forerunner of writers like Barry Lopez and Peter Matthiessen. He notes that those caught up in the rat race adapt the world to their comfort and convenience, prizing technology and manmade tidiness over natural wonders. By contrast, he feels he sees more clearly – literally as well as metaphorically – when he takes the long view of a landscape.
I marked so many passages of beautiful description. Halle had mastered the art of noticing. But he also sounds a premonitory note, one that was ahead of its time in the 1940s and needs heeding now more than ever: “When I see men able to pass by such a shining and miraculous thing as this Cape May warbler, the very distillate of life, and then marvel at the internal-combustion engine, I think we had all better make ourselves ready for another Flood.”
This was a lucky find at Hay Cinema Bookshop back in September. For me it was the ideal combination of thoughtful prose and vicarious travel, though I imagine it might not mean as much to those without a local connection. The black-and-white in-text illustrations by Francis L. Jaques are a particularly nice addition.
Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? I’ve been to Washington, and guess what I’ve seen… by Russell Punter and Dan Taylor (2019)
More cherry blossoms over tourist landmarks! This is part of a children’s series inspired by the 1805 English rhyme about London; other volumes visit New York City, Paris, and Rome. In rhyming couplets, he takes us from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial via all the other key sights of the Mall and further afield: museums and monuments, the Library of Congress, the National Cathedral, Arlington Cemetery, even somewhere I’ve never been – Theodore Roosevelt Island. Realism and whimsy (a kid-sized cat) together; lots of diversity in the crowd scenes. What’s not to like? (Titled Kitty cat, kitty cat… in the USA.)
And, as a bonus, some fiction in translation:
Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (2014; 2017)
[Translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton]
Like a Murakami protagonist, Taro is a divorced man in his thirties, mildly interested in the sometimes peculiar goings-on in his vicinity. Rumor has it that his Tokyo apartment complex will be torn down soon, but for now the PR manager is happy enough here. “Avoiding bother was Taro’s governing principle.” But bother comes to find him in the form of a neighbor, Nishi, who is obsessed with a nearby house that was the backdrop for the art book Spring Garden, a collection of photographs of a married couple’s life. Her enthusiasm gradually draws Taro into the depicted existence of the TV commercial director and actress who lived there 25 years ago, as well as the young family who live there now. This Akutagawa Prize winner failed to hold my interest – like The Guest Cat, it’s oddly preoccupied with architectural detail, a Japanese fascination that doesn’t translate so well.
Have you been reading anything particularly appropriate for spring this year?
It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of the first UK lockdown and here we are still living our lives online. The first hint I had of how serious things were going to get was when a London event with Anne Tyler I was due to attend in March 2020 with Eric and Laura T. was cancelled, followed by … everything else. Oh well.
This February was a bountiful month for online literary conversations. I’m catching up now by writing up my notes from a few more events (after Saunders and Ishiguro) that helped to brighten my evenings and weekends.
Melanie Finn in Conversation with Claire Fuller
(Exile in Bookville American online bookstore event on Facebook, February 2nd)
I was a big fan of Melanie Finn’s 2015 novel Shame (retitled The Gloaming), which I reviewed for Third Way magazine. Her new book, The Hare, sounds appealing but isn’t yet available in the UK. Rosie and Bennett, a 20-years-older man, meet in New York City. Readers soon enough know that he is a scoundrel, but Rosie doesn’t, and they settle together in Vermont. A contemporary storyline looking back at how they met contrasts the romantic potential of their relationship with its current reality.
Fuller said The Hare is her favorite kind of novel: literary but also a page-turner. (Indeed, the same could be said of Fuller’s books.) She noted that Finn’s previous three novels are all partly set in Africa and have a seam of violence – perhaps justified – running through. Finn acknowledged that everyday life in a postcolonial country has been a recurring element in her fiction, arising from her own experience growing up in Kenya, but the new book marked a change of heart: there is so much coming out of Africa by Black writers that she feels she doesn’t have anything to add. The authors agreed you have to be cruel to your characters.
Finn believes descriptive writing is one of her strengths, perhaps due to her time as a journalist. She still takes inspiration from headlines. Now that she and her family (a wildlife filmmaker husband and twin daughters born in her forties) are rooted in Vermont, she sees more nature writing in her work. They recovered a clear-cut plot and grow their own food; they also forage in the woods, and a hunter shoots surplus deer and gives them the venison. Appropriately, she read a tense deer-hunting passage from The Hare. Finn also teaches skiing and offers much the same advice as about writing: repetition eventually leads to elegance.
I was especially interested to hear the two novelists compare their composition process. Finn races through a draft in two months, but rewriting takes her a year, and she always knows the ending in advance. Fuller’s work, on the other hand, is largely unplanned; she starts with a character and a place and then just writes, finding out what she’s created much later on. (If you’ve read her Women’s Prize-longlisted upcoming novel, Unsettled Ground, you, too, would have noted her mention of a derelict caravan in the woods that her son took her to see.) Both said they don’t really like writing! Finn said she likes the idea of being a writer, while Fuller that she likes having written – a direct echo of Dorothy Parker’s quip: “I hate writing. I love having written.” Their fiction makes a good pairing and the conversation flowed freely.
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, “Light in Darkness,” Part I
I’d attended once in person, in 2016 (see my write-up of Sarah Perry and more), when this was still known as Bloxham Festival and was held at Bloxham School in Oxfordshire. Starting next year, it will take place in central Oxford instead. I attended the three morning events of Part I; there’s another virtual program taking place on Saturday the 17th of April.
Rachel Mann on The Gospel of Eve
Mann opened with a long reading from Chapter 1 of her debut novel (I reviewed it here) and said it is about her “three favorite things: sex, death, and religion,” all of which involve a sort of self-emptying. Mark Oakley, dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, interviewed her. He noted that her book has been likened to “Dan Brown on steroids.” Mann laughed but recognizes that, though she’s a ‘serious poet’, her gift as a novelist is for pace. She’s a lover of thrillers and, like Brown, gets obsessed with secrets. Although she and her protagonist, Kitty, are outwardly similar (a rural, working-class background and theological training), she quoted Evelyn Waugh’s dictum that all characters should be based on at least three people. Mann argued that the Church has not dealt as well with desire as it has with friendship. She thinks the best priests, like novelists, are genuine and engage with other people’s stories.
Francis Spufford on Light Perpetual
Mann then interviewed Spufford about his second novel, which arose from his frequent walks to his teaching job at Goldsmiths College in London. A plaque on an Iceland commemorates a World War II bombing that killed 15 children in what was then a Woolworths. He decided to commit an act of “literary resurrection” – but through imaginary people in a made-up, working-class South London location. The idea was to mediate between time and eternity. “All lives are remarkable and exceptional if you look at them up close,” he said. The opening bombing scene is delivered in extreme slow motion and then the book jumps on in 15-year intervals, in a reminder of scale. He read a passage from the end of the book when Ben, a bus conductor who fell in love with a Nigerian woman who took him to her Pentecostal Church, is lying in a hospice bed. It was a beautiful litany of “Praise him” statements, a panorama of everyday life: “Praise him at food banks,” etc. It made for a very moving moment.
Mark Oakley on the books that got him through the pandemic
Oakley, in turn, was interviewed by Spufford – everyone did double duty as speaker and questioner! He mentioned six books that meant a lot to him during lockdown. Three of them I’d read myself and can also recommend: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (my nonfiction book of 2020), Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt (one of my top five poetry picks from 2020), and Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious by David Dark. His top read of all, though, is a book I haven’t read but would like to: Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour (see Susan’s review). Rounding out his six were The Act of Living by Frank Tallis, about the psychology of finding fulfillment, and The Hunted by Gabriel Bergmoser, a bleak thriller set in the Outback. He read a prepared sermon-like piece on the books rather than just having a chat about them, which made it a bit more difficult to engage.
Spufford asked him if his reading had been about catharsis. Perhaps for some of those choices, he conceded. Oakley spoke of two lessons learned from lockdown. One is “I am an incarnational Christian” in opposition to the way we’ve all now been reduced to screens, abstract and nonmobile. And secondly, “Don’t be prosaic.” He called literalism a curse and decried the thinness of binary views of the world. “Literature is always challenging your answers, asking who you are when you get beyond what you’re good at.” I thought that was an excellent point, as was his bottom line about books: “It’s not how many you get through, but how many get through to you.”
Gavin Francis in Conversation with Louise Welsh
(Wellcome Collection event, February 25th)
Francis, a medical doctor, wrote Intensive Care (I reviewed it here) month by month and sent chapters to his editor as he went along. Its narrative begins barely a year ago and yet it was published in January – a real feat given the usual time scale of book publishing. It was always meant to have the urgent feel of journalism, to be a “hot take,” as he put it, about COVID-19. He finds writing therapeutic; it helps him make sense of and process things as he looks back to the ‘before time’. He remembers first discussing this virus out of China with friends at a Burns Night supper in January 2020. Francis sees so many people using their “retrospecto-scopes” this year and asking what we might have done differently, if only we’d known.
He shook his head over the unnatural situations that Covid has forced us all into: “we’re gregarious mammals” and yet the virus is spread by voice and touch, so those are the very things we have to avoid. GP practices have had to fundamentally change how they operate, and he foresees telephone triage continuing even after the worst of this is over. He’s noted a rise in antidepressant use over the last year. So the vaccine, to him, is like “liquid hope”; even if not 100% protective, it does seem to prevent deaths and ventilation. Vaccination is like paying for the fire service, he said: it’s not a personal medical intervention but a community thing. This talk didn’t add a lot for me as I’d read the book, but for those who hadn’t, I’m sure it would have been an ideal introduction – and I enjoyed hearing the Scottish accents.
Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.
Have you attended any online literary events recently?
The Being/Becoming/Asking the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction. This is my second entry for the week after Monday’s post on postpartum depression, as well as the second installment in my new “Three on a Theme” series, where I review three books that have something significant in common and tell you which one to pick up if you want to read into the topic for yourself.
It will be no surprise to regular readers that both of my ‘expert’ posts have been on a health theme: I have an amateur’s love of medical memoirs and works of medical history, and I’ve followed the Wellcome Book Prize closely for a number of years – participating in official blog tours, creating a shadow panel, and running this past year’s Not the Wellcome Prize.
The three books below are linked by the word “Care” in the title or subtitle; all reflect, in the wake of COVID-19, on the ongoing crisis in UK healthcare and the vital role of nurses.
Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care by Madeleine Bunting
Bunting’s previous nonfiction work could hardly be more different: Love of Country was a travel memoir about the Scottish Hebrides. It was the first book I finished reading in 2017, and there could have been no better start to a year’s reading. With a background in history, journalism and politics, the author is well placed to comment on current events. Labours of Love arose from five years of travel to healthcare settings across the UK: care homes for the elderly and disabled, hospitals, local doctors’ surgeries, and palliative care units. Forget the Thursday-night clapping and rainbows in the windows: the NHS is perennially underfunded and its staff undervalued, by conservative governments as well as by people who rely on it.
We first experience bodily care as infants, Bunting notes, and many of the questions that run through her book originated in her early days of motherhood. Despite all the advances of feminism, parental duties follow the female-dominated pattern evident in the caring careers:
By the age of fifty-nine, women will have a fifty-fifty chance of being, or having been, a carer for a sick or elderly person. At the same time, many are still raising their teenage children and almost half of those over fifty-five are providing regular care for grandchildren.
Women dominate caring professions such as nursing (89 per cent), social work (75 per cent) and childcare (98 per cent). They now form the majority of GPs (54 per cent) and three out of four teachers are female. And they provide the vast bulk of the army of healthcare workers in the NHS (80 per cent) and social-care workers (82 per cent) for the long-term sick, disabled and frail elderly.
These are things we know intuitively, but seeing the numbers laid out so plainly is shocking. I most valued the general information in Bunting’s introduction and in between her interviews, while I found that the bulk of the book alternated between dry statistics and page after page of interview transcripts. However, I did love hearing more from Marion Coutts, the author of the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize winner, The Iceberg, about her husband’s death from brain cancer. (Labours of Love was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2020.)
My thanks to Granta for the free copy for review.
Duty of Care: One NHS Doctor’s Story of Courage and Compassion on the COVID-19 Frontline by Dr Dominic Pimenta
We’re going to see a flood of such books; I’m most looking forward to Dr Rachel Clarke’s Breathtaking (coming in January). Given how long it takes to get a book from manuscript to published product, I was impressed to find this on my library’s Bestsellers shelf in October. Pimenta’s was an early voice warning of the scale of the crisis and the government’s lack of preparation. He focuses on a narrow window of time, from February – when he encountered his first apparent case of coronavirus – to May, when, in protest at a government official flouting lockdown (readers outside the UK might not be familiar with the Cummings affair), he resigned his cardiology job at a London hospital to focus on his new charity, HEROES, which supports healthcare workers via PPE, childcare grants, mental health help and so on.
It felt uncanny to be watching events from earlier in the year unfold again: so clearly on a trajectory to disaster, but still gripping in the telling. Pimenta’s recreated dialogue and scenes are excellent. He gives a real sense of the challenges in his personal and professional lives. But I think I’d like a little more distance before I read this in entirety. Just from my skim, I know that it’s a very fluid book that reads almost like a thriller, and it ends with a sober but sensible statement of the situation we face. (All royalties from the book go to HEROES.)
The Courage to Care: A Call for Compassion by Christie Watson
I worried this would be a dull work of polemic; perhaps the title, though stirring, is inapt, as the book is actually a straightforward sequel to Watson’s 2018 memoir about being a nurse, The Language of Kindness. Although, like Bunting, Watson traveled widely to research the state of care in the country, she mostly relies on her own experience of various nursing settings over two decades: a pediatric intensive care unit, home healthcare for the elderly, a children’s oncology day center, a residential home for those with severe physical and learning disabilities, a community mental-health visiting team, and the emergency room. She also shadows military nurses and prison doctors.
With a novelist’s talent for scene-setting and characterization, Watson weaves each patient and incident into a vibrant story. Another strand is about parenthood: giving birth to her daughter and the process of adopting her son – both are now teenagers she raises as a single mother. She affirms the value of everyday care delivered by parents and nurses alike. I was especially struck by the account of a teenage girl who contracted measles (then pneumonia, meningitis and encephalitis) and was left blind and profoundly disabled, all because her parents were antivaxxers. In general, I’ve wearied of doctors’ memoirs composed of obviously anonymized case studies, but I’ll always make an exception for Clarke and Watson because of their gorgeous writing.
Note: Watson had left nursing to write full-time, but explains in an afterword that she returned to critical care in a London hospital during COVID-19.
What I learned:
Empathy is a key term for all three authors. They emphasize that the skills of compassion and listening are just as important as the ability to perform the required medical procedures.
A chilling specific fact I learned: 43,000 people died in the Blitz* in the UK. Pimenta cited that figure and warned that COVID-19 could be worse. And indeed, as of now, over 63,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the UK. The American death toll is even more alarming.
Here are some passages that stood out for me from each book:
Bunting: “Good care is as much an art as a skill, as much competence as tact. … Care is where we make profound collective decisions about the worth of an individual life. … There is no tradition of ageing wisely in the West, unlike in many Asian and African cultures where age has prestige, status and is associated with wisdom … We need to speak about care in a different language, instead of the relentless macho repetition of words such as ‘efficiency’, ‘quality’, ‘driving’, ‘choice’, ‘delivery’ and productivity.’”
Pimenta: “this will be akin to the Blitz*, and … we need to start thinking of it like that. A marathon, not a sprint. … The challenges to come – a second or even third wave, a global recession, climate change, mass misinformation … and political and societal upheaval … – will all require more from all of us if we hope to meet them. The challenge of our generation is not behind us, it is only just beginning. I plan to continue doing something about it, and perhaps now you do as well. So stay informed, stay safe and be kind.”
Watson: “So much of nursing, I think to myself, seems obvious, and yet seeing that need in the first place is difficult and takes experience, training and something extra. … The mundanity of human existence is where I find the most beauty … It takes my breath away: how fragile, extraordinary and vulnerable, how full of hatred and love and obsession and complexity we all are – every single one of us.”
*I highly recommend all of folk artist Kris Drever’s latest album, Where the World Is Thin, but especially the song “Hunker Down / That Old Blitz Spirit,” which has become my lockdown anthem.
If you read just one, though… Make it The Courage to Care by Christie Watson.