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The Book Trail: Nature and Non-Fiction Edition

I am beginning this latest Book Trail with one of my favourite works of non-fiction from recent years – Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool in order to come up with this list. As ever, please let me know which of these books you have read, and which whet your appetite!

1. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
‘Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator. When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life. Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.’

2. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
‘Robert Macfarlane travels Britain’s ancient paths and discovers the secrets of our beautiful, underappreciated landscape. Following the tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths that form part of a vast ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond, Robert Macfarlane discovers a lost world – a landscape of the feet and the mind, of pilgrimage and ritual, of stories and ghosts; above all of the places and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations.’

3. Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin
‘When Roger Deakin died in August 2006, his death was considered by many to be a great loss to literature. “Notes From Walnut Tree Farm” collects together the jottings, musings and observations with which he filled a series of notebooks for the last six years of his life. In this beautiful illustrated collection, descriptions of walks on Mellis Common and thoughts on the importance of nature sit side by side with memories of the past and musings about literature, while perfectly rendered observations of the tiny, missable visual details of everyday life are skilfully woven with a gentle, wise philosophy. Organized into twelve months of impressions, the notes reveal a passionate but gentle character and his extraordinary, restless curiosity. Capturing Deakin’s unique turn of phrase and inspired use of language, and infused throughout with the magically meditative tranquility of Walnut Tree Farm, this is a charming introduction to one of the most important of modern nature writers, or the perfect follow-up to “Wildwood” and “Waterlog”.’

4. The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
‘In 1940 Steinbeck sailed in a sardine boat with his great friend the marine biologist, Ed Ricketts, to collect marine invertebrates from the beaches of the Gulf of California. The expedition was described by the two men in Sea of Cortez, published in 1941. The day-to-day story of the trip is told here in the Log, which combines science, philosophy and high-spirited adventure.’

5. Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings by Valerie Trouet
‘Children around the world know that to tell how old a tree is, you count its rings. Few people, however, know that research into tree rings has also made amazing contributions to our understanding of Earth’s climate history and its influences on human civilization over the past 2,000 years. In her captivating new book, Tree Story, Valerie Trouet reveals how the seemingly simple and relatively familiar concept of counting tree rings has inspired far-reaching scientific breakthroughs that illuminate the complex interactions between nature and people. Trouet, a leading tree-ring scientist, takes us out into the field, from remote African villages to radioactive Russian forests, offering readers an insider’s look at tree-ring research, a discipline formally known as dendrochronology. Tracing her own professional journey while exploring dendrochronology’s history and applications, Trouet describes the basics of how tell-tale tree cores are collected and dated with ring-by-ring precision, explaining the unexpected and momentous insights we’ve gained from the resulting samples. Blending popular science, travelogue, and cultural history, Tree Story highlights exciting findings of tree-ring research, including the fate of lost pirate treasure, successful strategies for surviving California wildfire, the secret to Genghis Khan’s victories, the connection between Egyptian pharaohs and volcanoes, and even the role of olives in the fall of Rome. These fascinating tales are deftly woven together to show us how dendrochronology sheds light on global climate dynamics and uncovers the clear links between humans and our leafy neighbors. Trouet delights us with her dedication to the tangible appeal of studying trees, a discipline that has taken her to austere and beautiful landscapes around the globe and has enabled scientists to solve long-pondered mysteries of Earth and its human inhabitants.’

6. Things the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Everett
‘How does one young man survive the deaths of his entire family and manage to make something worthwhile of his life? In Things The Grandchildren Should Know Mark Oliver Everett tells the story of what it’s like to grow up the insecure son of a genius in a wacky Virginia Ice Storm-like family. Left to run wild with his sister, his father off in some parallel universe of his own invention, Everett’s upbringing was ‘ridiculous, sometimes tragic and always unsteady’. But somehow he manages to not only survive his crazy upbringing and ensuing tragedies; he makes something of his life, striking out on a journey to find himself by channelling his experiences into his, eventually, critically acclaimed music with the Eels. But it’s not an easy path. Told with surprising candour, Things The Grandchildren Should Know is an inspiring and remarkable story, full of hope, humour and wry wisdom.’

7. Close Encounters with Humankind by Sang-Hee Lee
‘What can fossilized teeth tell us about our ancient ancestors’ life expectancy? Did farming play a problematic role in the history of human evolution? And what do we have in common with Neanderthals? In this captivating bestseller, Close Encounters with Humankind, paleoanthropologist Sang-Hee Lee explores our greatest evolutionary questions from new and unexpected angles. Through a series of entertaining, bite-sized chapters that combine anthropological insight with cutting-edge science, we gain fresh perspectives into our first hominin ancestors and ways to challenge perceptions about the traditional progression of evolution. With Lee as our guide, we discover that we indeed have always been a species of continuous change.’

8. The Ghost Orchard by Helen Humphreys
‘For readers of H is for Hawk and The Frozen ThamesThe Ghost Orchard is award-winning author Helen Humphreys’ fascinating journey into the secret history of an iconic food. Delving deep into the storied past of the apple in North America, Humphreys explores the intricate link between agriculture, settlement, and human relationships. With her signature insight and exquisite prose, she brings light to such varied topics as how the apple first came across the Atlantic Ocean with a relatively unknown Quaker woman long before the more famed “Johnny Appleseed”; how bountiful Indigenous orchards were targeted to be taken over or eradicated by white settlers and their armies; how the once-17,000 varietals of apple cultivated were catalogued by watercolour artists from the United States’ Department of Pomology;  how apples wove into the life and poetry of Robert Frost; and how Humphreys’ own curiosity was piqued by the Winter Pear Pearmain, believed to be the world’s best tasting apple, which she found growing beside an abandoned cottage not far from her home. In telling this hidden history, Humphreys writes movingly about the experience of her research, something she undertook as one of her closest friends was dying. The result is a book that is both personal and universal, combining engaging storytelling, historical detail, and deep emotional insight.’

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‘The Travelers’ by Regina Porter ****

Regina Porter’s sweeping debut novel, The Travelers, was recommended to me by the wonderful Storygraph website. For those readers who have yet to check it out, I would highly recommend it. You can important existing reading lists, and the recommendations are tailored specifically to you; basically, it weeds out a lot of the generic fiction which Goodreads seems to proffer, and allows you to come across titles which you perhaps wouldn’t otherwise. The Travelers was such a title for me.

Porter has blended together a history of the United States, which ranges from the middle of the twentieth century, to President Obama’s first year in office. It illuminates more than six decades of tumult and change on a grand scale, moving from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, to the Vietnam War and beyond. Porter incorporates several US states – New York, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Tennessee – as well as the likes of France and Germany. Her focus is two families, who seem rather different on the face of it, and who come together in ‘unexpected, intimate and profoundly human ways’.

The first character we meet is Jimmy Vincent; Porter moves rather hurriedly through the momentous occasions in his life. As the novel progresses, we meet one character after another in this way, and learn more about them when their paths cross. The links between them come to light slowly at times, and quickly at others; some are self-explanatory, and others are rather surprising. The connections forged are many, and clever.

Each of the characters, perhaps unsurprisingly given the novel’s title, undergoes travel in some way; sometimes across continents, and at others just to a house in the same town they grew up in, or from one relationship to another. They move towards, and away from things. Porter effortlessly captures how each individual, as well as the places which they inhabit, change over time, and understands so well how different neighbourhoods and communities can so easily become gentrified.

Much is revealed about each of the protagonists; for instance, in 1966, we meet nineteen-year-old Agnes Miller. Porter writes: ‘Agnes’s legs were so long they could skip across the Nile. Her hemline was modest. She worked part-time in the college library. Whenever anyone asked Agnes what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would tell him or her automatically that she wanted to be a teacher. It did not matter if Agnes liked the profession. The answer was suitable and pleasing.’ The first tense moment in the novel – and there are many which follow it – occurs when Agnes and her fiancé, Claude, are stopped by police whilst driving.

Porter’s prose is rather more matter-of-fact than I was expecting, but her style works wonderfully given the scope of the novel. She has managed to fit in an astonishing amount in just over 300 pages. Two elements of her writing which I very much enjoyed are the use of vignettes, and the differing perspectives which she creates. Whilst we hear from a few characters in the first person, an omniscient narrative has been chosen for others. This helps to break up the writing, and stops any of the characters from feeling too similar, as can so often happen in books featuring multiple perspectives. The structure is not a linear one either, and moves back and forth in time, which allows Porter to build up the more mysterious elements of the stories with a great deal of tension and wonder.

That The Travelers is infused with melancholy seems obvious, given that Porter covers a lot of difficult and grave topics here – the aftermath of war, grieving, racial issues, and the breakdown of relationships, for instance – but there are also some amusing and lighthearted moments to be found. There is also a great deal of emotion within the pages of The Travelers, and some passages which will stay with me for a long time yet: ‘Nevertheless, Eloise would remember these rare evenings from hr childhood when she sat at the kitchen table on a broken stool between her mother and father and the three of them peered down together at the newspaper clipping and she did not have to vie for their attention with beer, bourbon, scotch, or gin.’

First published in 2019, The Travelers is a remarkable debut. The different threads of story, set in different locations and time periods, which run through the whole, have been wonderfully wrapped up at the end, without rushing, or making unrealistic claims. There is such variety here, and so much for the reader to enjoy. The characters are distinctive, and everything within the novel has been executed admirably. Each time period is well anchored, with a lot of specific social and societal detail. I found The Travelers to be wonderfully absorbing, and transporting.

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‘Weather’ by Jenny Offill ****

Jenny Offill is an author whose work I very much enjoy; I was enraptured whilst reading both Dept. of Speculation and Last Things. Her newest novel, Weather, appealed to me on several levels, and I was eager to dig in.

The protagonist of Weather is Lizzie Benson, who managed to slide ‘into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree.’ Whilst this causes animosity with some of her colleagues, it also gives her ‘a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: as an unofficial shrink.’ Lizzie comes from a difficult familial background; her mother is ‘God-haunted’, and speaks to her of ‘the light, the vine, the living bread’, and her brother is a troubled, recovering addict.

From the outset of the novel, we are introduced to some of the library’s patrons, and their very particular quirks. There, is, for instance, ‘The man in the shabby suit [who] does not want his fines lowered. He is pleased to contribute to our institution. The blond girl whose nails are bitten to the quick stops by after lunch and leaves with a purse full of toilet paper.’ There is some wonderfully strange imagery at play throughout Weather; for example, ‘But the man in the shabby suit tells me things I want to know. He works for hospice. He said that it is important when a loved one dies to try to stay alone in the house for three days. This is when the manifestations occur. His wife manifested as a small whirlwind that swept the papers off his desk.’

Lizzie’s old mentor, Sylvia Liller, was responsible for getting her young protégée her job. Sylvia is currently well-known for her ‘prescient podcast’ about the state of the world, entitled ‘Hell and High Water’. She proposes to Lizzie that she could build her career by answering the mail which she receives in response to the podcast; this is from ‘left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of Western civilization.’

As she is considering whether to take the job, Lizzie reveals: ‘I ask her what sorts of things she gets. All kinds, she tells me, but everyone who writes her is either crazy or depressed. We need the money for sure, but I tell her I have to think about it. Because it’s possible my life is already filled with these people.’ She decides to accept, and begins to move in a different trajectory to that which her librarian job offers. As Lizzie becomes a part of this highly polarised platform, she finds that ‘the voices of the city keep floating in – funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.’

Offill has cleverly woven together several different elements, allowing us to really get to know her characters and their foibles. Alongside musings about Lizzie’s career, she worries deeply about motherhood, and protecting her young son, Eli: ‘I’m not allowed to think about how big this school is or how small he is. I’ve made that mistake after other drop-offs. I should be used to it by now, but sometimes I get spooked all over again.’ Offill gives us a real insight into her protagonist and what matters to her, as well as the tiny cruelties which play on her mind, and the more philosophical questions which she considers.

I warmed to Lizzie very quickly, and appreciated the character arc which is taken throughout the novel. She is a highly complex individual, who muses about such interesting things. One particular foible of Lizzie’s which I loved was her ‘bookish superstition about my birthday… I like to see what Virginia Woolf said about an age in her diaries before I reach it. Usually it’s inspiring.’ This could well be something which I choose to adopt in my own life, so taken with the idea was I!

There is always something in Offill’s novels which feels original, which is uniquely hers. Weather is no different. At just 200 pages, it is a relatively quick read, but so much fills it. It is a realistic novel, but at the same time, there is an almost magical, otherworldly quality to it. The structure of paragraph-long vignettes which have been used work marvellously. I really enjoyed the approach taken, and felt connected with the story from beginning to end. I sank into Offill’s prose from the very first page, and did not want to finish reading.

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‘Painter to the King’ by Amy Sackville ****

I adored Amy Sackville’s first two novels, Orkney and The Still Point. When I spotted a copy of her newest work in my local library, therefore, I picked it up and read its blurb with interest. Painter to the King is very different in its approach, given that it marks Sackville’s first foray into historical fiction, but as she is such an innovative writer, I fully expected to love it too.

Painter to the King gives a fictional account of artist Diego Velázquez, who, as a twenty three-year-old, was summoned to the court of King Philip IV of Spain. He arrived in Madrid to become the official ‘painter to the King’, a position which he would hold until his death.

Velázquez’s job gave him ‘an unparalleled view of palace life’, and it is this which Sackville has set out to explore. She examines his story through his own eyes, and in consequence, ‘… we see an intimate relationship that is not quite a friendship, between a king and his subject, between an artist and his subject.’ Sackville aims to expose ‘what is shown and what is seen, about art and death and life’, and dips into the spaces between.

When we first meet Velázquez, in 1622, he has ridden to Madrid from Seville: ‘He had a stipend for the journey and some pride, he arrives in style: he has paid for a horse. Just one attendant on a mule with the baggage, who has no features in the dark beyond the torchlight.’ He meets the King quite soon afterwards; at this point, Philip IV is not even twenty, seen as ‘a man of solid flesh, and the greatest monarch in the world.’ He has been the King of Spain for two years, much of that time spent mourning his late father. He would go on to rule Spain during the Thirty Years War.

The omniscient narrator of the novel speaks from a position of hindsight. When describing the King, for instance, the following is said: ‘… Now he is young and golden, and his people love him, and although he is melancholy by temperament he hasn’t yet known many of the many sadnesses that will later come to weigh him down and pull at the corners of his eyes and cast the court into muttering silence, chafing in the draughts; all this is to come and if anyone can see it they won’t speak, won’t see it, or won’t be listened to; only a fool would tell a truth like that one, that it’s all already ending -‘. The narrator also writes about experiences they have had viewing Velázquez’s paintings whilst on a trip to Madrid in the modern world; I found this a thoughtful inclusion.

I loved Sackville’s descriptions, and the importance of minutiae in her writing. Her prose is beautiful and rich, suffused with detail. I admired the way in which she tries to infiltrate the visions of the artist at the novel’s core. She writes: ‘The painter has faith in solid objects, arresting their motion through the world and preserving forever their thisness, the quiddity of matter and moisture and shine; transparency, opacity; the exterior that things present to the world, and how much of the world can be seen through them, distorted, distilled… he attends to all of this, plasticity, rigidity, fragility, damage and flaw, detail, surface and shape.’

Painter to the King is highly evocative throughout, and Sackville captures precise scenery, sights, and smells with such a deft hand. The writing here is often sensuous, particularly when Velázquez’s work is described, or when evoking the entire process of creating a new painting. When she describes El Corto, the area around the palace in which civilians live and work, she writes: ‘Everything here exists to serve the court, to bake its bread and cure its meat and weave and stretch its linens and sew its sleeves and tunics and undergarments; an ersatz city at the axis of a cross drawn through the country, and built upon a high dry plain across which hot winds in summer and ice winds in winter wander and gallop like madness.’

Sackville’s prose is relatively experimental, and there are some sections of stream-of-consciousness here. I really liked the fresh approach which she gives to the historical novel, a genre which tends to follow a similar writing style. Sackville’s rich vocabulary lends itself well to this work, and allows her to blend art and history in such a satisfying way. Painter to the King reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s playful historical novel Orlando at times. She sweeps through Philip’s reign, and Velázquez’s career with such authority.

Painter to the King was first published in 2018, but I only found out about it when browsing in my local library in the summer of 2020; even as someone who looks out for Sackville’s work, I do not find it reviewed often – or at all – and this is a great shame. I admired this interesting and unconventional work of historical fiction, but must admit that I did not find it as compelling or as breathtaking as her contemporary fiction. However, Sackville is a highly underrated writer, and one which I urge every reader to seek out. Whichever of her novels you choose to begin with, they are guaranteed to intrigue and surprise.

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‘The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’ by Laura Miller *****

I have never been a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but I could not get enough of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when I was a child. I remember, on a couple of occasions, finishing the last paperback in the series – a gorgeous boxed edition which my mother was given when she was a child, and passed on to me – and going right back to the beginning. I have read the series in adulthood, and found it almost as magical.

I was therefore very keen to read Laura Miller’s memoir, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which charts her own experiences of reading the Chronicles, both in childhood and adulthood. She writes: ‘My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as heady as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion.’ Jonathan Lethem deems Miller’s book a ‘superb long essay’, ‘conversational, embracing and casually erudite’, and Karen Joy Fowler calls it ‘smart, meticulous, and altogether delightful’.

The Magician’s Book chronicles – pardon the pun – Miller’s ‘long, tumultuous relationship’ with C.S. Lewis’ books. Just as I did as a young teenager, Miller discovered the wealth of Christian material which suffused the books; these seem obvious to me as an older reader, but as a child, they went right over my head. Miller’s experience from this point veered in a different direction to mine; I was still keen to submerge myself within the books, but the ‘Christian themes left [Miller] feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust.’

As an adult, Miller – who was working as a literary critic at the time – came to the stories from a different perspective. She decided to investigate the Chronicles, alongside Lewis’ life, ‘to see what mysteries Narnia holds for adult eyes’. She was thankfully enraptured by the stories once more, and was able to recapture some of the childhood love which she felt for them. She muses at length upon the Christian symbolism in the novels, explaining why she initially felt let down by this element, and how cleverly Lewis drew parallels between the two. She examines, too, the role of women and race within the novels, and the lack of distinct politics in Narnia, amongst so many other elements.

I loved the mixing of Miller’s own memoir alongside a quite detailed biography of C.S. Lewis himself. She visits the places in which he lived, in both England and Ireland, and travels to the specific Irish landscapes which inspired portions of the books. Miller found Lewis to be a man ‘who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation’. In her research, she was particularly interested in his all-engulfing friendship with Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the influence which he has had upon a slew of modern writers, including Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Franzen. Miller gives a fantastic commentary regarding mythology and Medieval romance, and its influences on both Lewis and Tolkien.

The Magician’s Book opens with a reflection of Miller’s childhood, when the greatest love which she felt was for the Narnia stories. She writes in especially touching prose here, telling us: ‘I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.’ Narnia showed the young Laura how she ‘could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.’

Miller writes beautifully throughout about Narnia and its magic. She also details how formative reading the Chronicles were, and how they provided a sort of moral and educational primer for its child readers. She says, for instance: ‘To me, the best children’s books gave their child characters (and by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. In Narnia, the boundary between childhood and adulthood – a vast tundra of tedious years – could be elided. The Pevensies not only get to topple the White Witch, fight in battles, participate in an earthshaking mystical event, and be crowned kings and queens; they do it all without having to grow up. Yet they become more than children, too. Above all, their decisions have moral gravity. In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or worse, really matters…’.

I found The Magician’s Book fascinating. Miller offers a thorough, even intricate, work of literary criticism. I left with a renewed love for the Narnia books myself, as well as a list of a few other lists and authors to explore – something which I greatly appreciate. The Magician’s Book is, overall, a fantastic melding of a variety of genres and interests, and of themes and elements found within a children’s series which contains an awful lot of depth.

As Miller puts it so wonderfully herself, Narnia ‘mixed up classical and Northern mythologies, canonical fairy tales and slangy modern schoolchildren, myth and satire, all with such cheerful indiscrimination.’ This is a wonderful piece of literary criticism, and I can only hope that every fan of Narnia will have the chance to pick it up.

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‘The Eternal Season: Ghosts of Summers Past, Present and Future’ by Stephen Rutt ****

The Eternal Season: Ghosts of Summers Past, Present and Future is naturalist Stephen Rutt’s third book. His newest effort is set against the background of the pandemic, which has so affected us all since the beginning of 2020. As with many of us, it stopped Rutt’s plans in their tracks, preventing him from travelling across Britain’s woods and forests, and following warblers, the intended initial focus of this book. A Suffolk-born resident of the Scottish market town of Dumfries, Rutt spent the first few months of the pandemic living with his partner’s family, during an ‘enforced stay’ in rural Bedfordshire.

Like many of us, Rutt turned to the constancy of nature during the first summer of the pandemic – and he found anything but. Wherever he was physically during this year, he spent his time noting ‘the abundance teeming in our hedgerows, marshlands and woodlands’. In his close communication with the nature around him, though, he began to notice ‘disturbances to the traditional rhythms of the natural world: the wrong birds singing at the wrong time, disruption to habitats and breeding, [and] the myriad ways climate change is causing a derangement of the seasons.’ What came out of lockdown for Rutt was The Eternal Season, in which he both celebrates the summer season, and observes the ‘delicate series of disorientations that we may not always notice.’

In his introduction, Rutt writes: ‘Birds have always been the focus of my passion for nature and they always will be. But the summer does not belong to them alone; there is a full spectrum of life to consider that can seem largely absent from the winter months: the butterflies and dragonflies that add colour to the days; the moths that haunt the warm nights and the swooping bats that pick them off; the unforgettable arachnids and amphibians that lurk in ignored corners.’ He goes on, commenting: ‘Our summer wildlife is the filter through which we can see what’s really happening in our seasons’, as it tends to have a far-reaching knock-on effect. As Rutt sets out, ‘A bird you look at is no longer just a bird but one of an intertwined series of forces, capable of being expressed as statistics, that explain the terribly restless, indecent state of the world.’

One of the real strengths of The Eternal Season regards the way in which Rutt writes of his surroundings. On his ‘allowed daily exercise’, as he walks in a Bedfordshire wood, he recounts: ‘A muntjac disappeared through a brief blizzard of blossom, driven from the blackthorn by the breeze. Cowslips and primroses and their hybrid, the false oxlips, spangled the edge of the track with stars of lemon and butter. Leafwards, I slipped into a green hypnosis.’

As a ‘locked-down naturalist’ trying to make the best of things, he turns to the Internet, exploring by way of Google and Ordnance Survey maps. He writes at length about the challenges climate change has already wrought in Britain, and muses about what it may mean for our native and visiting species in the future. He makes one continually aware of ways in which things are changing, and how something which alters somewhere else in the world can have such a serious knock-on effect in Britain. Everything is connected, and the ruin of one thing could bring about the ruin of all. Throughout, Rutt quotes the results of surveys, as well as a wealth of other naturalists, and even novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Each chapter here focuses on a single species, from the little owl to the natterjack toad. He notices the species around him changing, along with their abundance. Throughout, there are stark warnings, and mixed feelings. On the walks which he takes around the Bedfordshire countryside, he comments: ‘It was the first cuckoo I had seen in two years. The first yellow wagtail in three, corn bunting in four… And this feeling is incredibly complicated for me. I’m excited, as birds always make me; I’m delighted to be seeing these species when I had begun to wonder if I would ever see them again. But here is the kicker: it’s one pair of yellow wagtails, one individual cuckoo, a few pairs of corn bunting… The species might be here but their numbers are low, the birds being spread even thinner. And it feels as if I’m writing my own archive of loss, walking through a living museum before it’s sealed off behind the glass case of history, a display of the future dead and gone.’

Rutt’s prose is intelligent and accessible, and it is clear to see that he is a rising star in the world of nature writing. The Eternal Season is a book for every single person who has sought out the nature around them in the last, strange year; who has mused upon the species which they have seen in their local parks; and who are more aware than ever of which species exist, and which thrive, around them. Rutt is acutely aware of what we may stand to lose, and what may have been lost already. A feeling of hope, however, suffuses the whole – and what more do we need after the last year, but hope?

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‘The New Wilderness’ by Diane Cook ****

I had been seeing Diane Cook’s latest novel, The New Wilderness, everywhere before receiving a review copy. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2020, and television rights have already been purchased by Warner Brothers. The New Wilderness has been highly praised everywhere I have looked; Lemn Sissay deems it ‘the environmental novel of our times’, and Emily St. John Mandel applauds it as a ‘virtuosic debut, brutal and beautiful in equal measure.

Cook’s dystopian novel is about a future in which climate change has ravaged our cities, making them unlivable. She has focused upon the relationship between a mother, Bea, and her daughter, Agnes. When Agnes is five, she is gravely ill, as a consequence of the damaged world. She is wasting away, ‘consumed by the smog and pollution of the over-developed metropolis they call home.’ Bea knows that if they stay in the city, where medical treatment is difficult to find, Agnes is sure to die. They have no choice but to join a social experiment, pioneered by Bea’s husband, Glen; they will move to the last remaining wilderness – the ‘unwelcoming, untamed’ Wilderness State – to join a group of volunteers. They travel here simply ‘because there was no other place they could go’.

This experiment, overseen by a series of Rangers and officials who fill the Wilderness space, ‘took almost a year of working and waiting to get the permission to place humans into what was essentially a refuge for wildlife, the last Wilderness area left… It was risky. It was uncomfortably unknown. It was an extreme idea and an even more extreme reality.’ The family slowly learn how to survive in their new surroundings, which are unpredictable, and often fraught with danger. Their experience quickly becomes a disorienting one; they stop measuring days, and have only vague maps on which to mark their journeys and location. They are nomads, really; they traverse the land, not permitted to stay in any one place for more than a week.

From its very beginning, The New Wilderness is vivid, and plays to our collective visceral fear of the world changing irreversibly. In the first scene, Bea gives birth to a baby daughter, who is stillborn. Cook writes of this in prose which sets the largely bleak tone for the whole novel: ‘The body emerged from Bea the color of a bruise. Bea burned the cord somewhere between them and uncoiled it from the girl’s slight neck and, though she knew it was useless, swept her daughter up into her hands, tapped on her soft chest, and blew a few shallow breaths into her skinny mouth.’ The reader is quickly given an insight into Bea’s state of mind; she reflects that she did not want to bring a baby into this new world, and doing so would have been wrong.

We learn a lot about Bea’s approach to motherhood, as well as her constantly shifting relationship with her daughter, as the novel progresses. Early on, it is revealed that Bea ‘loved Agnes fiercely, though motherhood felt like a heavy coat she was compelled to put on each day no matter the weather.’ Bea soon learns that as Agnes grows healthier, and becomes more independent, their new life will threaten their relationship in a very real way.

The boundaries between the human and animal worlds are wonderfully blurred in The New Wilderness; indeed, I believe that this is one of the elements which Cook handles most impressively. The human group often finds itself trespassing into habitats which animals have called home for centuries. Of course, they rely on the animals being around them as a source of food and clothing, amongst other things, but Cook makes it clear that the animals themselves are disappearing at an alarming rate; they are becoming rare. The characters’ primal instincts are also often compared to animal counterparts, which I found to be an interesting touch: ‘Like an animal, Agnes froze when fearful and bolted when endangered. Bea imagined that as Agnes grew up this world would change. She might feel less like prey and more like a predator.’

Descriptions of the natural world are plentiful here. The environment in which the group lives is recognisable, but their circumstances are so out of the ordinary. Cook builds a believable scenario very early on, and her world-building is competent and thorough. We do not know where exactly the novel is set, or in which year, but it provides a scary glimpse into what the future really could hold, unless we as a civilisation drastically change our ways. The reader quickly gets a feel for their environment, and the way in which they are forced to live within it.

There are, as one might expect, many trigger warnings in this novel, from death and violence particularly. Also shocking, if perhaps inevitable, is the approach which the members of the group take toward death: ‘They had seen a lot of death. They had become hardened to it. Not just the Community members who had perished in grisly or mundane ways. But around them everything died openly. Dying was as common as living. They worried about one another, of course, but when one of them ceased surviving for whatever reason, they closed ranks and put their energy into what remained alive.’

The New Wilderness draws together a lot of elements which interest me in fiction – dystopias, complex relationships, growing up – and Cook handles each so well. I found The New Wilderness to be a compelling and highly readable novel, which holds a few surprises along the way. The plot moves along very well indeed, and the characters and their actions are convincing.

3

The Book Trail: From Blaming to Small Pleasures

This edition of the Book Trail kicks off with a novel which I very much enjoyed reading last year – Blaming by the wonderful Elizabeth Taylor. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

  1. Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor
    ‘When Amy’s husband dies on holiday in Istanbul, she is supported by the kindly but rather slovenly Martha, a young American novelist who lives in London. Upon their return to England, Amy is ungratefully reluctant to maintain their friendship, but the skeins of their existence seem inextricably linked as grief gives way to resilience and again to tragedy. Reversals of fortune and a compelling cast of characters, including Ernie, ex-sailor turned housekeeper, and Amy’s wonderfully precocious granddaughters, add spice to a novel that delights even as it unveils the most uncomfortable human emotions.’

2. A Celibate Season by Carol Shields and Blanche Howard
‘Carol Shields, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Blanche Howard, winner of the Canadian Booksellers’ Award, teamed up to write this delightful epistolary novel that probes the inner life of one couple’s rocky marriage. Faced with a job-related ten-month separation, Jocelyn and Charles choose to maintain contact through letters — an economic decision that paves the way for two very different and very entertaining sides of the same story. As the months progress, the couple’s letters grow less frequent and more revealing — and their “season of celibacy” becomes more of a challenge than either Jocelyn or Charles had imagined. Posing important and timely questions about commitment, monogamy, and the pressures of career and money, this insightful novel by two extraordinary writers offers a perceptive and hopeful look at how men and women really communicate.’

3. Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky
‘There are still places on earth that are unknown. Visually stunning and uniquely designed, this wondrous book captures fifty islands that are far away in every sense-from the mainland, from people, from airports, and from holiday brochures. Author Judith Schalansky used historic events and scientific reports as a springboard for each island, providing information on its distance from the mainland, whether its inhabited, its features, and the stories that have shaped its lore. With full-color maps and an air of mysterious adventure, Atlas of Remote Island is perfect for the traveler or romantic in all of us.’

4. The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer
‘For readers of Ottessa Moshfegh and Han Kang, a whip-smart debut novel in which a woman on the verge of major change addresses her doctor in a stream of consciousness narrative. In a well-appointed examination in London, a young woman unburdens herself to a certain Dr. Seligman. Though she can barely see above his head, she holds forth about her life and desires, her struggles with her sexuality and identity. Born and raised in Germany, she has been living in London for several years, determined to break free from her family origins and her haunted homeland. But the recent death of her grandfather, and an unexpected inheritance, make it clear that you cannot easily outrun your own shame, whether it be physical, familial, historical, national, or all of the above. Or can you? With Dr. Seligman’s help, our narrator will find out. In a monologue that is both deliciously dark and subversively funny, she takes us on a wide-ranging journey from Hitler-centered sexual fantasies and overbearing mothers to the medicinal properties of squirrel tails and the notion that anatomical changes can serve as historical reparation. The Appointment is an audacious debut novel by an explosive new international literary voice, challenging all of our notions of what is fluid and what is fixed, and the myriad ways we seek to make peace with others and ourselves in the 21st century.’

5. What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez
‘A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life: an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer. In each of these people the woman finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences. The narrator orchestrates this chorus of voices for the most part as a passive listener, until one of them makes an extraordinary request, drawing her into an intense and transformative experience of her own. In What Are You Going Through, Nunez brings wisdom, humor, and insight to a novel about human connection and the changing nature of relationships in our times. A surprising story about empathy and the unusual ways one person can help another through hardship, her book offers a moving and provocative portrait of the way we live now.’

6. Monogamy by Sue Miller
‘Graham and Annie have been married for nearly thirty years. A golden couple, their seemingly effortless devotion has long been the envy of their circle of friends and acquaintances. Graham is a bookseller, a big, gregarious man with large appetites—curious, eager to please, a lover of life, and the convivial host of frequent, lively parties at his and Annie’s comfortable house in Cambridge. Annie, more reserved and introspective, is a photographer. She is about to have her first gallery show after a six-year lull and is worried that the best years of her career may be behind her. They have two adult children; Lucas, Graham’s son with his first wife, Frieda, works in New York. Annie and Graham’s daughter, Sarah, lives in San Francisco. Though Frieda is an integral part of this far-flung, loving family, Annie feels confident in the knowledge that she is Graham’s last and greatest love. When Graham suddenly dies—this man whose enormous presence has seemed to dominate their lives together—Annie is lost. What is the point of going on, she wonders, without him? Then, while she is still mourning him intensely, she discovers that Graham had been unfaithful to her; and she spirals into darkness, wondering if she ever truly knew the man who loved her.’

7. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
‘Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s two families—the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich yet flawed characters ”the father, the two mothers, the grandmother, and the uncle ”she also reveals the joy, as well as the destruction, they brought to one another’s lives. At the heart of it all are the two lives at stake, and like the best writers – think Toni Morrison with The Bluest Eye – Jones portrays the fragility of these young girls with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women, just not as their mothers.’

8. Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
‘1957, south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother: a small life from which there is no likelihood of escape. When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud. But the more Jean investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen is now a friend, and her quirky and charming daughter Margaret a sort of surrogate child. And Jean doesn’t mean to fall in love with Gretchen’s husband, Howard, but Howard surprises her with his dry wit, his intelligence and his kindness – and when she does fall, she falls hard. But he is married, and to her friend – who is also the subject of the story she is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness… But there will be a price to pay, and it will be unbearable.’

Have you read any of these books?