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‘Wintering: A Season with Geese’ by Stephen Rutt

I adore books about the natural world, and find them both calming and peaceful to read – something which is very important, given the current state of the world. Stephen Rutt is a young naturalist who has published two non-fiction books; Wintering: A Season with Geese is his second.

Wintering was selected as one of the Times‘ Books of the Year 2019, and has been very highly praised. Jon Dunn in BBC Wildlife magazine writes: ‘Rutt’s dreamy prose is as cool and elegant as the season he charts’, and the Times calls it a ‘poignant testament to how we can find peace in the rhythms of the natural world.’ Waterstones calls it an ‘understated gem’.

In the autumn, Rutt swapped his life in Essex for a house near the Solway Firth in Dumfries, ‘a little town tucked away in the corner of Scotland, barely beyond the English border’. As he and his partner were settling in their new home, and their new country, thousands of pink-footed geese were also arriving from the Arctic Circle, to winter in Scotland. Their arrival is heralded each year as ‘one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of the season.’

In his new surroundings, Rutt cannot help but notice geese; they seem to be everywhere around him. Although he had little curiosity regarding them before – he notes in his introduction that, in mid-September during his move, ‘I am not interested in geese yet’ – he embarks on an ‘extraordinary odyssey’, in which he ‘traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the British Isles and explores the place they have in our culture and our history.’

In Wintering, Rutt has created what the book’s blurb hails ‘a vivid tour of the landscapes they inhabit and a celebration of the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season.’ The author finds himself ‘celebrating the beauty of winter, when we share our home with these large, startling and garrulous birds.’

Wintering has been split into six different chapters, each of which corresponds to one of the most common species of geese in the United Kingdom. To be specific, these are the Pink-footed, Barnacle, Greylag, Brent, White-fronted, and Bean. In the book’s introduction, he notes that at the turn of winter: ‘Five wild species will head to Britain for the winter: a relative land of plenty, and gentler weather, respite from a north that is, still, ice-bloated and snowbound for the winter.’

Rutt had been a birder for a long time – ‘almost half my life,’ he says – but geese only became a fascination once he moved to Scotland: ‘Their habit of always just being there, their familiarity, bred apathy,’ he admits. His winter of geese begins on the 23rd of September, with a ‘simple arrow of birds as distant as the hills, heading south through the sunset.’ It is filled, then, with ‘wild half-count, half-estimates at the numbers passing overhead, between the fields north of the town and the Solway Firth to the south.’

Throughout Wintering, Rutt charts his journey into winter, and into his fascination with the geese: ‘I am falling more deeply for geese on a daily basis. Although I am told the winter won’t always be like this – they are wild geese after all, predictably unpredictable – the regular skeins flying over are captivating me. Sinking deep inside me… In a new place they are making me feel, tentatively, at home.’

From its very first page, where Rutt writes: ‘Autumn begins as a season for movement, and ends with everything changed’, one cannot help but be charmed by his pitch-perfect prose. He has such an awareness of the seasons, and of the birds which populate them. Early on, he writes: ‘Birds penetrate my year: time passes constantly but birds are the grammar of its passing, they give a rough working order to the months. I have my totems: the first singing chiffchaff at the beginning of spring and the first screeching swift at its end. The silencing of song at the end of summer; the disappearance of the swifts and the arrival of autumn.’

Rutt’s descriptions provide scenes so vivid that they are almost tangible to the reader: ‘Suddenly – geese, pushed over by the weather, heading to the Solway. A chaos of pink-footed geese, stretching across the horizon. There are thousands, the skeins straggling, struggling without a set order, flying in all directions. Lead geese swapping with others. Individuals peeling off and joining other groups, geese like a kaleidoscope of panic. Their honking sounds urgent. Wings labouring, growing damp in the rain, energy sapped by the wind.’ Later is this: ‘A hare basks in the middle of a field, in front of a dense barnacle goose flock, their monochrome plumage burning bright in the sun. The silver flanks dazzle, the white and black bars on their backs are like sharp light and thick shadow.’

Throughout, Rutt has sprinkled some really interesting facts about geese alongside his own observations. He writes, for instance, that the Bean goose is now so rare in the county of Dumfries and Galloway that ‘if you see one you have to write a description of it for a panel of four men to adjudicate on whether you are correct.’ He also writes about the fluctuation of population sizes, which are largely due to indiscriminate hunting, and the subsequent banning of this practice.

Throughout Wintering, Rutt discusses many elements which surround geese and their place in the world – their history, different migratory patterns, the uses for their meat and feathers, the domestication of various species, and geese in art and literature. He also touches upon conservation in many of the chapters which make up the book.

It was a wonderful thing, to revisit Scotland alongside Rutt. Although he lives in and describes a part of Scotland which I have never been to, having lived in Glasgow for three years, I recognised the often stark beauty of the landscapes which he writes about: ‘It is a bleak, dreich day: October by calendar, deep into winter by spirit. I can only faintly see the first line of hills. The trees reduced to pale grey shadows, their shapes indistinct in the weather.’

Wintering is a real delight, particularly to snuggle down with on a cool autumn or winter evening. It is clear that Rutt has such an interest in his chosen subjects; indeed, he writes: ‘My love of geese might be recent, but it connects me with a human fascination extending back for millennia.’

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‘To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace’ by Kapka Kassabova ****

Before the virus completely took over 2020, and made it almost impossible to travel without a two-week quarantine, my boyfriend and I had planned a trip to North Macedonia. We were intending to end our holiday with a wild swim at Lake Ohrid, somewhere we have wanted to visit for years. We are hoping that we will be able to embark on this trip at some point during 2021, but for now, I reached for the closest thing I could find – Kapka Kassabova’s non-fiction title To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace.

The Balkans is an area which I have travelled in relatively extensively already, but I find it fascinating to see regions which I love – as well as those which I have yet to visit – through the eyes of someone who is somehow connected to the physical place. Kassabova’s maternal grandmother grew up in the town of Ohrid, beside the lake, which lies ‘within the mountainous borderlands of North Macedonia, Albania, and Greece’. Lake Ohrid, and also Lake Prespa, which can be found relatively nearby, are located in ‘one of Eurasia’s most historically diverse areas’, and are the two oldest lakes in Europe. Ohrid and Prespa are joined by an underground river, and span these aforementioned borders.

‘By exploring on water and land the stories of poets, fishermen, and caretakers, misfits, rulers, and inheritors of war and exile,’ declares the blurb, ‘Kassabova uncovers the human history shaped by the lakes.’ Alongside her personal journey to reach her family’s roots, the author makes ‘a deeper enquiry into how geography and politics imprint themselves upon families and nations.’

For Kassabova, this region, which has housed ‘generations of my predecessors… is a realm of high altitudes and mesmeric depths, eagles and vineyards, orchards and old civilisations, a land tattooed with untold histories.’ The focus of To the Lake, as outlined in the introduction, is as follows: ‘Geography shapes history – we generally accept this as a fact. But we don’t often explore how families digest big historo-geographies, how these sculpt our inner landscape, and how we as individuals continue to influence the course of history in invisible but significant ways – because the local is inseparable from the global. I went to the Lakes to seek an understanding of such forces.’

The first chapter of To the Lake opens with Kassabova’s recollections of her maternal grandmother’s death. Her descriptions of her grandmother, Anastassia, which she goes on to reveal piece by piece, are so vibrant: ‘Surrounded by the mediocrity, conformity and mendacity that a totalitarian system thrives on, Anastassia lived with zest, speaking her mind in a society where half the population didn’t have a mind and the other half were careful to keep it to themselves.’ Her descriptions of her family particularly really stand out; she describes her mother thus, for example: ‘She always felt to me precariously attuned to life, as if born rootless, as if needing an external force to earth her.’

Some of Kassabova’s writing is undoubtedly beautiful – for instance, when she writes ‘Ohrid made you feel the weight of time, even on a peaceful evening like this, with only the screech of cicadas and the shuffle of old women in slippers’ – but there are some quite abrupt sentences and sections to be found within To the Lake. It does not feel entirely consistent at times, and Kassabova does have a tendency to jump from quite an involved history of the area to a conversation with someone who lives there, and often back again, without any delineation. This added a disjointed feel to the whole. However, the value and interest of the information which she presents was thankfully too strong for this to put me off as a reader.

To the Lake is certainly thorough; it was not a book which I felt able to read from cover to cover in one go, as it is so intricate – both in terms of the history and geography of the region, and of Kassabova’s own family. There is a great deal within the book which explores national divides throughout the lake region, as well as the religions which are practiced. Kassabova seems to focus far more upon the differences of the people whom she meets, than their similarities. There are some brief nods to fascinating Slavic folktales along the way, which I wish had been elaborated upon. Regardless, To the Lake is an important book, and an ultimately satisfying one, which I would highly recommend.

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‘Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers’ by Valerie Lawson ***

Since I was a child, I have loved P.L. Travers’ original Mary Poppins stories.  Like many of my generation, I am sure, my first introduction to Mary Poppins was in the incredibly saccharine Disney film adaptation, but I was absolutely thrilled to discover the original, sassy Mary not long afterwards.  I know relatively little about the author, aside what I gleaned from the Saving Mr Banks film, and when I received a copy of journalist Valerie Lawson’s Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, I was eager to find out what else I would discover.

9781476762920Helen Lyndon Goff, who later adopted the pen name Pamela Lyndon (P.L.) Travers, was born in Australia.  Her father, an Irishman ‘nowhere near good enough’, died in his early forties, ‘his life unfulfilled, his family left destitute and forced onto the charity of rich but emotionally chilly relations.’  Travers was the eldest of three girls, and went to live with her maiden aunt for a time when her youngest sister was born, and again with her mother and siblings after her father died.  Travers moved to London in 1924, in order to pursue her career in journalism.  Here, she ‘became involved with theosophy, traveled in the literary circles of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, and became a disciple of the famed spiritual guru Gurdjieff.’  She published the first Mary Poppins book in 1934.

We learn about Travers’ ancestors very early on, as well as the ways in which their decisions affected her life, both as a young girl, and later as an adult.  After the passing of her father, she went through life determined to find her own ‘Mr Banks’, a father figure who would look after her.

In her preface, Lawson writes: ‘[Mary] Poppins has lasted because she is as peculiar as she is kind, as threatening as she is comforting, as stern as she is sensual, as elusive as she is matter of fact.’  She goes on to acknowledge that P.L. Travers stipulated that she ‘did not want a biography written about her after her death’.  As is clear from her biographical subject, she disregarded this, and began her five-year “Pamela Hunt” that took her down ‘unexpected paths, both geographically and emotionally…  Her life was much more than I ever imagined.  My life expanded in the writing of hers.’

Mary Poppins, She Wrote has been split into three separate sections, which correspond to the three stages of womanhood which Travers believed in: ‘The Nymph’ (1899-1934), ‘The Mother’ (1934-1965), and ‘The Crone’ (1965-1996).  Some of the chapters open with an imagined narrative, which features Lyndon as a character.  These are often short, and I would argue that, although they are nicely written, they do not add a great deal to proceedings.

Lawson ponders throughout the various inspiration for Mary Poppins.  She writes of Travers’ fascination for fairytales when she was a child: ‘She liked the wickedest women most…  She was fascinated by the evil forces of the stories, the black sheep, the wicked fairy.’  She then goes on to examine the quite traumatic elements of Travers’ childhood, and the effects of her ‘cool yet unconventional parents’, which culminated in her ‘thriving on what was difficult.’  Throughout, there is a lot of literary criticism of the Mary Poppins books, as one might expect.  Whilst interesting, these sections are sometimes a little longwinded, and the details feel a little repetitive from time to time.  The same can be said for the exploration of Travers’ forays into spirituality.

Mary Poppins, She Wrote has a rather low average rating on Goodreads.  Other reviewers have written about some of the qualms they had with Lawson’s book; these almost always mention her exemplary research, but also her ‘sloppy’ writing, and a feeling of general disinterest in Travers’ own work.  However, as the only comprehensive biography of the rather mysterious P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins, She Wrote is the tome which curious readers will inevitably pick up.

I found the prose of Mary Poppins, She Wrote fitting given the subject matter, and was compelled to read the entirety of the book, but I must admit that after finishing it, I do not feel as though I know a great deal more about P.L. Travers.  Some elements of her life were glossed over, and I would have appreciated more depth of information throughout.  In consequence, Travers still comes across as a figure shrouded in mystery.

Whilst interesting enough, Mary Poppins, She Wrote had an approach which was perhaps a little too detached.  It did not feel, at any point aside from what she stresses in her preface, that Lawson was really connected with Travers.  The construction of Mary Poppins, She Wrote is just a little too choppy.  I would not discourage anyone from reading it, as Travers was a fascinating woman by all accounts, but it is definitely not the most thorough work of biography which I have picked up this year.

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‘A Greedy Peasant’ by Alexander Ertel ****

Russian author Alexander Ertel’s novella, A Greedy Peasant, has recently been published by Zephyr Books, an imprint of Michael Walmer Publishers. I have been a huge fan of Russian literature since my teens, and jump at the chance to try out any new-to-me Russian authors, of which Ertel was one. That his work was ‘greatly admired’ by Tolstoy is reason enough to pick one of his books up.

Originally written in 1886, the 1929 English translation, which appears in this version, was completed by Ertel’s daughter, Natalie Duddington. A Greedy Peasant is described by the publisher as ‘a moral fable distinguished by its lucid colour and realistic detail’, which immediately intrigued me.

A Greedy Peasant takes as its focus two brothers named Ivan and Yermil, who live in a rural region of Russia – a village rather grandly named Great Springs – and could not really be more different in their approaches to life. Ivan is largely content with his lot, putting in a great deal of effort on the family farm for not much reward. Yermil, however, has ‘dreams of improvement’; he is desperate to make his fortune, and ‘escape the drudgery of the peasant round’. The third brother, Onisim, is killed early on in the novella, a victim of conflict. His wife and young children become dependent on Ivan and Yermil. The family is ‘just made both ends meet, and that was all. They never had to buy bread and they had two ploughs… But there was nothing to spare.’

Yermil finds employment with a rich merchant in the local town. This merchant proves to be a ‘good master’ who ‘on holy days treated him to a glass of vodka’. His health improves alongside his wealth, but as his greed grows, everything begins to fall apart. Ertel writes: ‘At first he had grown fat on the good food he had at his master’s: his cheeks stood out, his neck was like a bear’s and the coat he had brought with him from home hardly met round the waist: when he tried to fasten it the buttonholes gave way. But now his thoughts made him grow thin; he looked sallow and his eyes were sunken. He could not master his greed.’

Ivan and his family spiral further into poverty whilst Yermil gives them barely a second thought. Stoic Ivan, though, tries to teach his brother lessons about what really matters, and to make him grateful for what he already has. When Yermil has to move back to the farm for a period, he seems ‘like a stranger in the house; it was as though he had returned from the town another man.’ Here, Ivan tells him, rather wisely: ‘You mustn’t look at other people, but live as good men do.’ Of course, Yermil takes no notice.

On his return to the town, Yermil becomes seethingly jealous of his master’s lifestyle. Perhaps inevitably, a day comes when Yermil is presented with an ‘horrifying opportunity’ to improve his life; he takes it, but ‘little does he realise that this dreadful secret action will set in motion a train of events which will end in catastrophe.’

Ertel’s prose is simple yet effective, and the emotional consequences build as the story progresses. I very much enjoyed the repeated descriptions, which somehow became more chilling as they went on: ‘The sky was white, the fields were white, sign-posts were stuck in the snow to mark the road, the sledge runners creaked in the frost.’ This use of repetition shows that although the lives of some of the protagonists change irrevocably, little perceptively does in the grander scheme of things.

A Greedy Peasant is a perceptive story, which is sure to appeal to anyone already interested in Russia, or who is wanting to try something a little different to their usual reading fare. There are a lot of important themes at play within A Greedy Peasant, and although some of these are relatively briefly explored, it sets a precedent for what one can expect from Russian literature of the nineteenth-century.

Ertel’s novella is easy to read, but provides a lot of food for thought. In the way of morality tales, The Greedy Peasant moves along well. A lot of cultural detail can be found throughout the book, and I am keen to try some of Ertel’s longer works – and soon – to see how they compare.

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‘The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World’ by Aliya Whiteley ***

Author Aliya Whiteley has been fascinated by fungi since her childhood spent in North Devon; indeed, science-fiction-like mushrooms bloom in much of her fiction. She is, she writes, ‘inspired by their surreal and alien beauty’. The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World is Whiteley’s non-fiction foray into the world of fungi great and small.

Whiteley provides ‘a glimpse into their incredible, surprising and dark world: a lyrical romp through the eruption, growth and decay under our feet, overhead, and even inside us.’ They can, writes Whiteley, ‘invade bodies and thoughts; they can live between our toes or between our floorboards; they are unwelcome intruders or vastly expensive treats; they are symbols of both death and eternal life.’

Fungi have been found on every continent on earth, and can flourish under all conditions, from deserts to tundra; they have even been found on the Space Station. Despite their familiar presence, however, we know relatively little about these ‘secretive lifeforms’.

Many fungi exist without a common name, and even without common characteristics. In her introduction, Whiteley reflects that even as a child, she recognised how different fungi could be, from ‘flat and smooth’ to ‘creased in texture, like folded paper’. She muses: ‘They could look bold, defiant, in the way their caps reared up from their stems, or they could be a mess of rotting material from which insects crawled and snails oozed.’ They can also be vastly different in the ways in which they present to humans, particularly with regard to their smell: ‘A flick through my identification guide,’ writes Whiteley, ‘reveals a host of descriptions that have passed me by: mushrooms that smell of shrimp, of sawdust, of radish, plums or parsley, of iodine, of rhubarb, of ammonia or crabmeat. They can smell unpleasant, sickly sweet, rank or rancid.’

The Secret Life of Fungi has been split into three separate sections – ‘Erupt’, ‘Spread’, and ‘Decay’ – which are, in turn, made up of short chapters. In these, Whiteley writes about many elements of fungi: their taxonomy and folk names, the uses of fungi in medicine, their reproduction processes, truffle hunting, fungal infections, and making sourdough bread, just for starters… She pays attention to their evolution, too. Whiteley’s prose style veers between the informal and the poetic, weaving in scientific evidence and historical discoveries along the way.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, in my opinion, were the mentions which Whiteley made of looking toward the future; she believes that fungi could ‘hold the key to a variety of scientific advances, from agriculture to environmental innovations.’ However, I do not feel as though this really went far enough; it was merely touched upon on a couple of occasions.

The Secret Life of Fungi is an anecdotal book, comprised of short chapters which only relate to one another in that they all mention some guise of fungi. Although Whiteley does cover a lot of ground here – from their cellular makeup, to the fascinating ways in which fungi interact with their surroundings, and their symbiotic relationships with other organisms – it is not an in-depth exploration by any means. However, it does provide so much of interest, and is certainly an accessible handbook of sorts. The handy ‘Reading List of Fungal Fiction’ allows you to go further in this field – pardon the pun – if you wish to.

In many ways, The Secret Life of Fungi is quite fascinating, but I do not feel as though it was overly engaging. Despite the different sections, the majority of the chapters have no flow from one to the next. Whilst I liked the general approach of the book, I did feel as though the ordering of sections was a little too random, and a more circular structure would have been far more effective.

I shall end this review on one of the main takeaways from the book, something which I feel can be easily overlooked: ‘Fungi, just like the rest of the Earth’s organisms, have to find a way to live in the world humans are creating, even to the detriment of others.’

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‘Spinster’ by Sylvia Ashton-Warner ***

There is a certain breed of reader who tries to spot the glorious forest green spines of Virago Modern Classics each time they enter a bookshop.  Reader, I am one of them.  I therefore quickly located a copy of Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Spinster, a book which I had wanted to read for years, on a pre-Christmas trip to an Oxfam Bookshop, and picked it up immediately.

In Spinster, Ashton-Warner tells the story of Anna Vorontosov, ‘spinster and genius’, who works as a teacher for Maori children in a remote New Zealand town, in the North Island area of Hawke’s Bay.  Anna is described as a ‘passionate woman, uncertain and gauche in her relations with men’; rather racy, it seems, for a novel first published in 1958.  Anna is able to find peace ‘only in her schoolroom, her garden and the little back room where she struggles to create the works which will set her beloved children free.’5988868

The Virago Modern Classics edition features an introduction written by the poet Fleur Adcock.  She writes that Spinster is ‘a remarkable book: one could almost say a better book than it deserves to be…  Somehow the country school-teacher who wanted an audience for her ideas about the teaching of reading had almost accidentally created not just a bestseller but a work of art.’  She goes on to comment on the ‘fresh, lively writing’, as well as the ‘suspense of a kind which does not seem artificial, and… a warm, half-exasperated, half-amused love for the children on whom the whole depends.’  Adcock also points out that in Spinster, ‘Ashton-Warner continues to use a first-person narrator who is both herself and not herself.’  She calls her ‘a convincing fictional character’ who is ‘certainly rooted in her creator’s experience.’

I got a feel for Anna and her peculiarities quite quickly.  In just the second paragraph, Ashton-Warner creates a motif which is repeated at several points throughout the book: ‘But here is the spring again with its new life, and as I walked down my back steps ready for school in the morning I notice the delphiniums.  They make me think of men.  The way they bloom so hotly in the summer, then die right out of sight in the winter, only to push up mercilessly again when the growth starts, is like my memory of love.’  Anna lives frugally, and relies heavily upon a tumbler of brandy, which she drinks each morning before school.  Our narrator comments: ‘Yet I teach well enough on brandy.  Once it has lined my stomach and arteries I don’t feel Guilt.  It supplies me with a top layer to my mind so that I meet fifty Maori infants as people rather than as the origin of the Inspector’s displeasure…’.

Anna is rather cynical about her profession.  She comments: ‘No other job in the world could possibly dispossess one as completely as this job of teaching.  You could stand all day in a laundry, for instance, still in possession of your mind.  But this teaching utterly obliterates you.’  She is overwhelming proud, however, to be the custodian of her pupils, whom she calls ‘Little Ones’.  She says: ‘I am made of their thoughts and their feelings.  I am composed of sixty-odd different pieces of personality.  I don’t know what I have been saying or what I will say next, and little of what I am saying at the time.’

So many shouts and demands from her pupils have been included, in long and quite disorientating conversational exchanges.  There is always a real awareness of ‘… dozens of infants talking and working and playing and laughing and crying and embracing and quarrelling and singing and making.’  I found this quite jarring, if I am honest.  Ashton-Warner successfully conveys the clamour and chaos of a large group of small children, but I cannot say that I enjoyed reading this.  So many characters are introduced at once that it feels like a real assault on the senses.

Spinster is very much of its time, and a lot of the language used within it to denote different groups of people was thankfully outlawed long ago.  Anna is quite a complex character, and this becomes more apparent as the novel moves from one season to the next.  Anna’s complexity, to me, had the effect of confusing the narrative somewhat.  She oscillates back and forth between past and present relationships, and her feelings for a colleague.

Spinster was a novel which brought Ashton-Warner immediate fame; it was later turned into a feature film.  Time Magazine calls it a ‘major literary masterpiece’, and fellow Virago-published author Penelope Mortimer admired the ‘explosive passion of Ashton-Warner’s prose, and the ‘eruption of innocent sensuality which is quite remarkable.’

Spinster is readable and written well enough, but I did not personally find it a compelling novel.  The stream-of-consciousness style which Ashton-Warner adopts is something which I ordinarily love, but here, I found it difficult to connect with.  I feel, too, that an opportunity was missed; much of the action takes place inside, or in the confined space of Anna’s garden, so there is very little description included about the New Zealand setting.

Little happens in Spinster; it is a character study, and not an entirely scintillating or convincing one at that.  Like a lot of readers, I preferred the second half of the novel to the first, but I am doubtful as to whether I will remember much about it in years to come.  Parts of Spinster were interesting, but others felt overdone, or a touch repetitive.  The novel was not quite what I was expecting, and I do not feel compelled to read any of Ashton-Warner’s other books in future.

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‘An Ode to Darkness’ by Sigri Sandberg ****

I had not heard of the Norwegian bestseller An Ode to Darkness before I spotted it in the library.  I was intrigued by the title, and decided to borrow it, keen as I am to read about all manner of non-fiction topics.  In this, a series of five short essays, Sigri Sandberg ‘explores our intimate relationship with the dark: why we are scared of it, why we need it and why the ever-encroaching light is damaging our well-being.’

0751578649Sandberg lives between northern Norway and Oslo.  In An Ode to Darkness, she ‘meditates on the cultural, historical, psychological and scientific meaning of the darkness, all the while testing the limits of her own fear.’  The book covers a trip which she made alone to her family’s isolated cabin in Finse, and spans the five days of her visit.  The cabin is situated in the mountains, almost 200 kilometres northwest of Oslo.  She decided to embark on her trip in order to ‘seek out natural darkness, knowledge and the night sky – and to see how long I dare stay.’  Her ‘all-consuming fear’ of the dark is exacerbated when she is isolated and alone, and so spending days in a secluded cabin was a real challenge for Sandberg.  She was keen to get to the stage where she could ‘be there without someone to hold me when darkness falls.’

In Finse, Sandberg is highly isolated; there are no roads into the village, and the nearest shop is located miles away from her cabin.  During the winter, which is when she visits, her closest neighbour is elsewhere, and she really learns what it means to be alone.  When she first arrives, Sandberg writes: ‘Even though I’m doing this of my own free will, I’m dreading the darkness so much that I can feel it in my chest and down in my feet.  It hurts.  I know the darkness will envelop me, not gently, but hard…  I can feel it in my bones…’.

Sandberg begins An Ode to Darkness by posing a somewhat poignant question: ‘When did you last see the stars?’  I lived in Glasgow for three years, and moved to London last year; both cities are polluted and often cloudy, and one can often only make out the stars if they travel beyond the suburbs.  I know completely what Sandberg means when she writes: ‘If you live in a city and look out of the window, there will be a greyish-yellow haze between you and the Milky Way.  Even if it is night.  Even if it is winter.’  This drowns out completely the ability to see stars.

Sandberg questions, in her introduction, what so much artificial light is doing to us, to our ‘sleep patterns and rhythms and bodies’.  She includes some rather startling facts; that sleep disorders are on the rise, that there are hardly any places in the world which are not now polluted by artificial light, and that sixty percent of Europeans and eighty percent of North Americans cannot see the stars where they live.  She muses upon definitions of what truly constitutes the night, our sleep and its effects, hibernation, mental health, and dreams and nightmares.  She then goes on to discuss the history of human relationships with darkness; we have always seen it as ‘an enemy, like the cold, something unsafe – and light was by definition good.’

Throughout An Ode to Darkness, Sandberg writes of others who have ventured into the dark, for various reasons.  Of particular interest to her is the story of Christiane Ritter who, in 1934, went to join her husband, who was working as a trapper on Svålbard.  This small group of islands is found halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.  Here, Ritter experienced constant winter darkness, as well as constant daylight during the summer months, and fell in love with the place.  Christiane’s story, which has recently been translated into English, is threaded throughout the book, and provides both similarities and contrasts to Sandberg’s own experiences.  I love the way in which Christiane’s story runs parallel to her own; it adds a lot of depth to what would otherwise be a brief, and potentially a very singular, memoir.

First published in 2019, and translated into English by Siân Mackie, An Ode to Darkness is a book which I would highly recommend.  It is the first book specifically about darkness which I have read, but it certainly gave me the push to think about darkness, and my own experiences within it.

Sandberg expresses, quite beautifully, why we need the darkness in our lives.  Her approach – to spend five days in an isolated cabin in Norway’s north, and then to write about it – is simple, yet highly effective.  An Ode to Darkness is highly readable, and faultlessly translated.  She reaches her goal, to ‘make sense of the dark’, and helps us, the reader, to do the same.