Tuesday, 29 May 2012


About a year ago, I wrote a post (The Writing Paper on the Shore) which I knew might alienate a few of my most loyal readers, criticising what I found to be the overwritten and oddly inorganic style of the book The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane.  It is never easy rejecting a book which has been warmly recommended by so many, but I don't suppose either of my regular readers comes here for the warm, fuzzy affirmation of their prejudices.  As Macfarlane is currently out and about publicising his new book (even his voice annoys me!), I thought it worth mentioning that I have just finished reading Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie.

What a contrast!  I'm not sure that it is quite up to the standard of her surprise bestseller Findings as a collection, but her writing, as such, is simply superb.  I won't go on about Macfarlane again, but in many ways Jamie is the exemplar of what I find absent in his style.

Nothing is superfluous, shoehorned in, or simply showy: every metaphor and simile is doing proper, writerly work, setting up connections and expectations that are always played through.  The opening piece, "Aurora", is a good example.  She is on one of those superior tourist-boat expeditions to the Norwegian fjords, to watch icebergs, whales, and the aurora borealis.  Unsurprisingly, she gets cold, she sees icebergs and the aurora.  It snows.  That's about it.  But the whole thing is a cunning weave of metaphors about accidents, destiny, the indifference of "nature", and human endeavour.

If you are sensitive to this sort of writing, the way "green" is used in "Aurora", for example, is wonderful, culminating in a perfectly timed comparison between the aurora and the radar screen on the ship's bridge.
We're like an audience -- some gaze directly, others have again raised long-lensed cameras -- standing in the deep cold, looking up, keeping silence, but it's not a show, it's more like watching fluidity of mind; an intellectualism,after the passivity of icebergs.  Not the performance of a finished work but a redrafting and recalculating.  In fact, because the aurora's green is exactly the same glowing green as the ship's radar screen, as the readout which gives the latitude and longitude, the aurora looks less like a natural phenomenon, more like a feat of technology.
 Above all, you sense someone whose curiosity is rooted in an honest appraisal of her life.  And who is fearless enough in pursuit of her curiosity to brave both a pathology laboratory and an open boat to St. Kilda.

Recommended.  But don't blame me if you don't enjoy it!


Paul Mc Cann said...

I decided years ago that life was too short to struggle through a book. The catalyst was 'Hotel du Lac'. I fired it at the bedroom wall. That was the only pleasure I got from it.

Mike C. said...


For a second I thought you meant you didn't read anything any more, but then realised you meant anything you weren't enjoying!

Me, too, though I did make it all the way through Macfarlane's book. Most recently I abandoned "Silver", Andrew Motion's sequel to Treasure Island, though I may pick it up again. Dull...


jonathan law said...

Jamie wrote a very interesting and mostly rather damning review of The Wild Places in The London Review of Books a few years back. While her distaste seems a wee bit visceral at times -- Macfarlane is a posh Englishman of a type she clearly does not greatly care for -- her main gripe is with his authorial grandstanding and the way in which his "lovely honeyed language" gets in the way of the landscape and its complicated human histories:

We see him swimming, climbing, looking, feeling, hearing, responding, being sensitive, and because almost no one else speaks, this begins to feel like an appropriation, as if the land has been taken from us and offered back, in a different language and tone and attitude. Because it’s land we’re talking about, this leads to an unfortunate sense that we’re in the company, however engaging, of another ‘owner’ ... What’s being reduced is not the health and variety of the landscape, but the variety of our engagement, our way of seeing, our languages.

I also very much liked this bit, about her attempts to read The Wild Places on "that icon of remoteness", St Kilda:

I never read a line, even when it rained. I was with friends and we were too busy. There were too many birds and basking sharks to watch, too many ruins to explore and projects to help with, too much conversation, too many general comings and goings, boats and helicopters ... St Kilda is busier on a summer’s day than many mainland places, what with the radar base and the cruise liners.

Mike C. said...

I didn't know that, Jonathan, thanks for the reference -- I'll look it up.

Sounds like Kathleen Jamie had a similar reaction to mine -- always nice to have one's prejudices confirmed by someone you admire!


Dave Leeke said...

I didn't know that she had a new book out so thanks for that, Mike. It's on order as of now. I loved "Findings" and have returned to it several times - her use of metaphor is stunning.

Mind you, she is a poet so I suppose it should be.

I still like "The Wild Places" as well, so I'm probably one of those you refer to. But, still, although not posh, I am an Englishman after all. . .