The 2021 Booker Prize shortlist will be announced tomorrow, September 14th, at 4 p.m. via a livestream. I’ve managed to read or skim eight of 13 from the longlist, only one of which I sought out specifically after it was nominated (An Island – the one no one had heard of; it turns out it was released by a publisher based just 1.5 miles from my home!). I review my four most recent reads below, followed by excerpts of reviews of ones I read a while ago and my brief thoughts on the rest, including what I expect to see on tomorrow’s shortlist.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Why ever did I put this on my Most Anticipated list of the year and pre-order a signed copy?! I’m a half-hearted Ishiguro fan at best (I love Nocturnes but am lukewarm on the other four I’ve read, including his Booker winner) and should have known that his take on AI would be no more inspiring than Ian McEwan’s (Machines Like Me) a couple of years back.
Klara is an Artificial Friend purchased as part of an effort to combat the epidemic of teenage loneliness – specifically, to cheer up her owner, Josie, who suffers from an unspecified illness and is in love with her neighbour, Rick, a bright boy who remains excluded. Klara thinks of the sun as a god, praying to it and eventually making a costly bargain to try to secure Josie’s future health.
Part One’s 45 pages are slow and tedious; the backstory could have been dispensed with in five fairy tale-like pages. There’s a YA air to the story: for much of the length I might have been rereading Everything, Everything. In fact, when I saw Ishiguro introduce the novel at a Guardian/Faber launch event, he revealed that it arose from a story he wrote for children. The further I got, the more I was sure I’d read it all before. That’s because the plot is pretty much identical to the final story in Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten.
Klara’s highly precise diction, referring to everyone in the third person, also gives this the feeling of translated fiction. While that is part of Ishiguro’s aim, of course – to explore the necessarily limited perspective and speech of a nonhuman entity (“Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing”) – it makes the prose dull and belaboured. The secondary characters include various campy villains, the ‘big reveals’ aren’t worth waiting for, and the ending is laughably reminiscent of Toy Story. This took me months and months to force myself through. What a slog! (New purchase)
An Island by Karen Jennings (2019)
Seventy-year-old Samuel has been an island lighthouse keeper for 14 years when a brown-skinned stranger washes up on his beach. Sole survivor from a sunken refugee boat, the man has no English, so they communicate through gestures. Jennings convincingly details the rigors of the isolated life here: Samuel dug his own toilet pipes, burns his trash once a week, and gets regular deliveries from a supply boat. Nothing is wasted and everything is appreciated here, even the thirdhand magazines and videotapes he inherits from the mainland.
Although the core action takes place in just four days, Samuel is so mentally shaky that his memories start getting mixed up with real life. We learn that he has been a father, a prisoner and a beggar. Jennings is South African, and in this parallel Africa, racial hierarchy still holds sway and a general became a dictator through a military coup. Samuel’s father was involved in the independence movement, while Samuel himself was arrested for resisting the dictator.
The novella’s themes – jealousy, mistrust, possessiveness, suspicion, and a return to primitive violence – are of perennial relevance. Somehow, it didn’t particularly resonate for me. It’s not dissimilar in style to J. M. Coetzee’s vague but brutal detachment, and it’s a highly male vision à la Doggerland. Though highly readable, it’s ultimately a somewhat thin fable with a predictable message about xenophobia. Still, I’m glad I discovered it through the Booker longlist.
My thanks to Holland House for the free copy for review.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
This has just as much of an environmentalist conscience as The Overstory, but a more intimate scope, focusing on a father and son who journey together in memory and imagination as well as in real life. The novel leaps between spheres: between the public eye, where neurodivergent Robin is a scientific marvel and an environmental activist, and the privacy of family life; between an ailing Earth and the other planets Theo studies; and between the humdrum of daily existence and the magic of another state where Robin can reconnect with his late mother. When I came to the end, I felt despondent and overwhelmed. But as time has passed, the book’s feral beauty has stuck with me. The pure sense of wonder Robin embodies is worth imitating. (Review forthcoming for BookBrowse.)
China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
Sahota appeared on Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists in 2013 and was previously shortlisted for The Year of the Runaways, a beautiful novel tracking the difficult paths of four Indian immigrants seeking a new life in Sheffield.
Three brides for three brothers: as Laura notes, it sounds like the setup of a folk tale, and there’s a timeless feel to this short novel set in the Punjab in the late 1920s and 1990s – it also reminded me of biblical stories like those of Jacob and Leah and David and Bathsheba. Mehar is one of three teenage girls married off to a set of brothers. The twist is that, because they wear heavy veils and only meet with their husbands at night for procreation, they don’t know which is which. Mehar is sure she’s worked out which brother is her husband, but her well-meaning curiosity has lasting consequences.
In the later storyline, a teenage addict returns from England to his ancestral estate to try to get clean before going to university and becomes captivated by the story of his great-grandmother and her sister wives, who were confined to the china room. The characters are real enough to touch, and the period and place details make the setting vivid. The two threads both explore limitations and desire, and the way the historical narrative keeps surging back in makes things surprisingly taut. See also Susan’s review. (Read via NetGalley)
Other reads, in brief:
(Links to my full reviews)
Second Place by Rachel Cusk: Significantly more readable than the Outline trilogy and with psychological depths worth pondering, though Freudian symbolism makes it old-fashioned. M’s voice is appealing, as is the marshy setting and its isolated dwellings. This feels like a place outside of time. The characters act and speak in ways that no real person ever would – the novel is most like a play: melodramatic and full of lofty pronouncements. Interesting, but nothing to take to heart; Cusk’s work is always intimidating in its cleverness.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson: In 1972, Clara, a plucky seven-year-old, sits vigil for the return of her sixteen-year-old sister, who ran away from home; and their neighbour, who’s in the hospital. One day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes in next door. This is Liam Kane, who inherited the house from a family friend. Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Tessa Hadley, Elizabeth Strout and Anne Tyler.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford: While I loved the premise, the execution didn’t live up to it. Spufford calls this an act of “literary resurrection” of five figures who survive a South London bombing. But these particular characters don’t seem worth spending time with; their narratives don’t connect up tightly, as expected, and feel derivative, serving only as ways to introduce issues (e.g. mental illness, sexual assault, racial violence, eating disorders) and try out different time periods. I would have taken a whole novel about Ben.
This leaves five more: Great Circle (by Maggie Shipstead) I found bloated and slow when I tried it in early July, but I’m going to give it another go when my library hold comes in. The Sweetness of Water (Nathan Harris) I might try if my library acquired it, but I’m not too bothered – from Eric’s review on Lonesome Reader, it sounds like it’s a slavery narrative by the numbers. I’m not at all interested in the novels by Anuk Arudpragasam, Damon Galgut, or Nadifa Mohamed but can’t say precisely why; their descriptions just don’t excite me.
Here’s what I expect to still be in the running after tomorrow. Clear-eyed, profound, international; bridging historical and contemporary; much that’s unabashedly highbrow.
- Second Place by Rachel Cusk
- The Promise by Damon Galgut (will win)
- No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
- Bewilderment by Richard Powers
- China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
- Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
What have you read from the longlist? What do you expect to be shortlisted?
It’s not November without a New Networks for Nature conference. Originally 2020’s was scheduled to take place in Norwich in July; it was then postponed to the usual November in hopes of an in-person meeting, but ultimately had to be online this year, like so much else. This was my sixth time taking part in this interdisciplinary gathering of authors, academics, and activists (I’ve also written about the 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019 conferences). The UEA organizers, Jean McNeil and Jos Smith, with New Networks stalwart John Fanshawe, did an excellent job of creating three virtual events for people to engage with from home.
Two pre-recorded panels brought together writers from different fields to reflect on nature literature and the environmental crisis. First up was “New Perspectives on Nature Writing,” picking up on a perennial conference theme.
I was delighted to hear Jessica J. Lee speak – I’ve reviewed both of her nature-infused memoirs, Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest, and in last year’s feedback I suggested her as a future speaker (I’m sure I’m not solely responsible!). After a PhD in environmental history, she moved into more personal writing. Questions of home, place, language, and identity were natural for her as a third-generation migrant. She initially felt alone as a person of colour in nature writing, but when she founded the Willowherb Review she quickly learned that it wasn’t that POC weren’t out there; it was that they did not have opportunities to publish – she has had 300+ submissions per issue to the online literary magazine, which welcomes work from all genres by authors of colour.
Also on the panel were Mona Arshi, a Punjabi poet based in London, and McNeil, a creative writing professor. Arshi has been a human rights lawyer and is the current poet-in-residence at Cley Marshes, Norfolk, in association with the Wildlife Trusts and UEA. She has had to try to absorb the landscape via video and sound recordings since COVID-19 has limited her in-person visits. She read a sonnet she wrote about her last trip there in September. All three panellists spoke about land being in some ways beyond language, though.
Jean McNeil’s Ice Diaries is a memoir of a year in residence with the British Antarctic Survey, a very male, scientific world. Antarctica is “no one’s country,” she remarked, though it’s the fifth-largest continent; it’s as if the land has no memory of people. She observed that it’s impossible to write about Antarctica without giving a sense of the journey (so she includes travel writing) and mentioning death. Raised without technology by back-to-the-land parents in Canada, McNeil has been active in the environmental movement in Brazil, Central America, and Africa (as a safari guide). Ice Diaries was already on my TBR, but I’m impressed by her breadth of experience and want to explore her varied work.
The second panel, “States of Emergency,” included an academic, a playwright, the CEO of an environmental charity, and a philosopher and activist. I was intrigued by UEA’s Rebecca Tillett’s brief opening address about contemporary North American indigenous responses to climate change in fiction (her research speciality). Her primary example was the Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, a postapocalyptic thriller in which the Wendigo, a figure from First Nations folklore, embodies capitalism as it consumes people with greed.
UEA-based playwright Steve Waters is planning outdoor theatre projects at nature reserves. James Thornton, the CEO of ClientEarth, spoke about starting with the science, the “grammar of the Earth.” His team has prevented new coal-fired stations in Europe and encouraged NGOs in China to sue polluting companies. Philosophy professor Rupert Reed was, until recently, an Extinction Rebellion spokesman. He noted that the climate emergency feels too slow and too long – a marathon, not a sprint; people don’t realize how profoundly our way of life and future are threatened. Alas, COVID-19 is not having the desired effect of turning people’s attention to the greater, ongoing emergency. He counselled acceptance and adaptation, stating that hope and action must go hand in hand. Thornton recalled the Dalai Lama telling him early in his career that he needed to get beyond anger because angry people don’t come up with viable solutions. The anger has to be turned into a positive vision.
There were live Q&A sessions for these two panels, but we weren’t able to watch. However, we did attend Saturday’s live keynote event featuring Tim Dee and Kathleen Jamie, two of the finest nature writers working today. Speaking from Cape Town, where he has been stranded since the start of the pandemic, Dee said that his current writing is about birds that are new to him but familiar to his neighbours. He explained that he admires and understands the world through birds, “who carry no bags or passports and are at home wherever they are.” In his work he explores how we are “made by places,” often returning to a place to reprocess his experiences there (e.g. Hungary in his latest book, Greenery). His notebooks, which are often just lists of birds seen, help him to “reinflate” a place when writing about it later.
Jamie agreed that her work also has this quality of “afterwardness” – finding the meaning of an experience long after the moment. She came across as down-to-earth, shrugging off McNeil’s question about transcendence and remarking that a sign above her desk reads “Nay narrative!” What is left for a lyric poet who loses faith in lyricism? For Jamie, the answer is prose poetry, as in “Tree on the Hill,” recently published in the LRB. Her poetry has always been local but her longform nonfiction has only ever come from other places, so while she’s been stuck in Fife she’s been unable to progress. But she never has any idea of what she’s writing, she said; she and her editor work out a theme once a whole book exists (for instance, the linking metaphor for Surfacing – unearthing archaeological evidence and memories).
Dee called himself a materialist – “no ideas but in things” – with language being what we clothe things in. He always double-checks his (sometimes elaborate) metaphors by putting them back onto a bird to ensure they fit. Jamie said she used to believe language was humans’ “fall” and would try to maintain a “pre-language state” for as long as possible every morning, but ultimately she changed her mind, accepting that language is what makes us human; it’s what we do. She acknowledges that nature writing like hers is not going to achieve things in the way that environmental activism can, but she hopes that bringing non-human creatures into the culture (as if it were an ark) can be a way of advocating for them all the same.
A brilliant programme, capped off with some visual and musical delights: “Where Song Began,” a one-hour cello and violin response/accompaniment to Australian birdsong created by Simone Slattery and Anthony Albrecht in January; and a brief virtual tour of the Nature Writing Collection in the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at UEA, which includes the papers of the late Roger Deakin and of (alive and kicking!) Mark Cocker, a UEA graduate. The archive contains Deakin’s drafts and pitches (Waterlog’s working title was “The Waters of the Wondrous Isle,” and he imagined it as an aquatic Rural Rides), photos, and even his Speedo bathing suit; along with Cocker’s field notebooks and fan mail.
According to the Sámi reindeer herders, there are actually eight seasons; we’d now be in “Spring-summer” (gidágiesse), which runs from May to June.
In recent weeks I’ve read some more books that engage with the spring and/or its metaphors of planting and resurrection. (The first installment was here.) Two fiction and two nonfiction selections this time.
The White Garden: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Stephanie Barron (2009)
Barron is best known for her Jane Austen Mysteries series. Here she takes up the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and crafts a conspiracy theory / alternative history in which Virginia did not commit suicide upon her disappearance in March 1941 but hid with Vita at Sissinghurst, her Kent home with the famous gardens. Investigating this in the autumn of 2008 are Jo Bellamy, an American garden designer who has been tasked with recreating Sackville-West’s famous White Garden at her wealthy client’s upstate New York estate, and Peter Llewelyn, a Sotheby’s employee who helps Jo authenticate a journal she finds hidden in a gardener’s shed at Sissinghurst.
Jo has a secret connection: her grandfather, Jock, who recently committed suicide, was a gardener here at the time of Woolf’s visit, and she believes the notebook may shed light on Virginia’s true fate and what led Jock to kill himself. Romantic complications ensue. This is fun escapism for Americans after an armchair trip to England (including Oxford and Cambridge for research), but so obviously written by an outsider. I had to correct what felt like dozens of errors (e.g. the indoor smoking ban came into effect in July 2007, so the hotel dining room wouldn’t have been filled with cigarette smoke; “pulling a few” is not slang for having a few drinks – rather, “pulling” has the connotation of making a romantic conquest).
I’ve visited Sissinghurst and Knole and had enough of an interest in the historical figures involved to keep me going through a slightly silly, frothy novel.
Greenery: Journeys in Springtime by Tim Dee (2020)
From the Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic Circle, Dee tracks the spring as it travels north. From first glimpse to last gasp, moving between his homes in two hemispheres, he makes the season last nearly half the year. His harbingers are chiefly migrating birds – starting with swallows. Here’s how he states his aim:
Knowing those annually recurring gifts of nature, and registering them alongside our own one-way journey through life, why not try to travel with the season and be in springtime for as long as possible, why not try to start where the season starts, and then to keep up with it, in step, walking a moving green room, travelling under the sun, like swallows out of Africa?
Starting in February in the Sahara Desert, he sees an abundance of the songbirds and raptors he’s used to finding in Europe, as well as more exotic species endemic to Africa. Any fear that this will turn out to be some plodding ‘I went here and saw this, then there and saw that’ nature/travel narrative dissipates instantly; although the book has a strong geographical and chronological through line, it flits between times and places as effortlessly as any bird, with the poetic quality of Dee’s observations lifting mundane moments into sharp focus. For instance, at their Ethiopian hotel, a wedding photography mecca, “a waiting wedding dress collapsed on a black cane chair, like an ostrich suicide.” A nightjar startled in the New Forest is “a bandaged balsa-wood model: a great moth’s head with the wings of a dark dragonfly.”
Dee’s wanderings take him from Scandinavia to central Europe and back. Wherever he happens to be, he is fully present, alive to a place and to all its echoes in memory and literature. He recalls a lonely year spent in Budapest studying Hungarian poetry in the 1980s, and how the sight and sound of birds like black woodpeckers and eagle owls revived him. Visits to migration hotspots like Gibraltar and Heligoland alternate with everyday jaunts in Ireland or the Bristol and Cambridgeshire environs he knows best.
Each vignette is headed with a place name and latitude, but many are undated, recalling springs from decades past or from the work of admired writers. Some of his walking companions and mentioned friends are celebrated nature or travel writers in their own right (like Julia Blackburn, Mark Cocker, Patrick McGuinness and Adam Nicolson; there’s also his cousin, fiction writer Tessa Hadley), while Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Seamus Heaney, D. H. Lawrence and Gilbert White are some of the book’s presiding spirits.
Greenery is steeped in allusions and profound thinking about deep time and what it means to be alive in an era when nature’s rhythms are becoming distorted. It is so gorgeously literary, so far from nature and travel writing as usual, that it should attract readers who wouldn’t normally dip into those genres. While Dee’s writing reminds me somewhat of Barry Lopez’s, closer comparisons could be made with Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard: quest narratives that nestle their nature writing within a substrate of memoir and philosophy. The last few pages, in which Dee, now in his late fifties, loses a close friend (Greg Poole, who painted the book’s cover) and receives a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease but also learns he is to become a father again, are achingly beautiful.
I find I’ve written more about this book than I intended to in a reviews roundup, but it’s so extraordinary it deserves this much and more. It’s not just one of the few best nonfiction books of the year, but a fresh, masterful model of how to write about nature.
In the Springtime of the Year by Susan Hill (1975)
This is my favorite of the six books I’ve now read by Hill. Early one spring, Ruth Bryce’s husband, Ben, dies in a forestry accident. They had been only married a year and now here she is, aged 20 and a widow. Ben’s little brother, 14-year-old Jo, is a faithful visitor, but after the funeral many simply leave Ruth alone. Ben’s death is a “stone cast into still water,” whose ripples spread out beyond his immediate family.
There is little plot as such, yet this is a lovely, quiet meditation on grief and solitude amid the rhythms of country life. Ruth vacillates between suicidal despair and epiphanies of exaltation at how all of life is connected. Religious imagery coinciding with Easter describes a cycle of death and renewal. Very late on in the book, as winter comes round again, she has the chance to be of help to another local family that has suffered a loss, and to a member of Ben’s remaining family.
It took me two whole springs to read this. For those who think of Hill as a writer of crime novels (the Simon Serrailler series) and compact thrillers (The Woman in Black et al.), this may seem very low on action in comparison, but there is something hypnotic about the oddly punctuated prose and the ebb and flow of emotions.
Plant Dreaming Deep by May Sarton (1968)
This serves as a prelude to the eight journals for which Sarton would become famous. It’s a low-key memoir about setting up home in the tiny town of Nelson, New Hampshire, making a garden and meeting the salt-of-the-earth locals who provided her support system and are immortalized in fictional form in the novel she published two years later, Kinds of Love. At the time of publication, she’d been in Nelson for 10 years; she would live there for 15 years in all, and (after seeing out her days in a rented house by the coast in Maine) be buried there.
Sarton was nearing 50 by the time she bought this, her first home, and for her it represented many things: a retreat from the world; a place for silence and solitude; and somewhere she could bring together the many aspects of herself, even if just by displaying her parents’ furniture, long in storage, and the souvenirs from her travels – “all the threads I hold in my hands have at last been woven together into a whole—the threads of the English and Belgian families from which I spring … the threads of my own wanderings”.
Nelson feels like a place outside of time. It holds annual Town Meetings, as it has for nearly two centuries. Her man-of-all-work, Perley Cole, still cuts the meadow with a scythe. After years of drought, she has to have water-drillers come and find her a new source. An ancient maple tree has to be cut down, reminding her of other deaths close to home. Through it all, her beloved garden is a reminder that new life floods back every year and the routines of hard work will be rewarded.
Some favorite lines:
“Experience is the fuel; I would live my life burning it up as I go along, so that at the end nothing is left unused, so that every piece of it has been consumed in the work.”
“gardening is one of the late joys, for youth is too impatient, too self-absorbed, and usually not rooted deeply enough to create a garden. Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demands patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.”
Note: I discovered I’ve always misunderstood this title, thinking it whimsically imagined a plant having dreams; instead, “plant” is an imperative verb, as in Sarton’s adaptation of Joachim du Bellay: “Happy the man who can long roaming reap, / Like old Ulysses when he shaped his course / Homeward at last toward the native source, / Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.” It’s about a place where one can root one’s work and intentions.