Review by Peter Reason, 10 October 2019
Kathleen Jamie is primarily known as a poet, but her prose writing is eagerly anticipated and widely acclaimed. Surfacing is the third in a loose trilogy of prose collections that joins Findings (2005) and Sightlines (2012). I am unashamedly a fan.
Findings drew nature and landscapes together with the domestic; in one essay Jamie watches the peregrines who nest within sight of her window; in another, she beachcombs on the Monach Islands. In Sightlines, she goes further afield, encountering ice in the Norwegian fjords, examining whale skeletons in a Bergen museum, joining a pathologist to study the inner landscape of the human body. Surfacing is about just what it says, the process of uncovering that which has been hidden. Several of the pieces—and indeed the longest—describe Jamie’s experience with surfacing from archaic times: in a reindeer cave in the Highlands; archaeological explorations in Alaska and on Westray in the Orkney Islands. But throughout, she reflects on how things surface in perception, in memory, in relationship, and how that surfacing impacts on present times. On opening the book, you read, ‘You’re sheltering in a cave, thinking about the Ice Age. From the cave-mouth: a West Highland landscape in spring, in the early Anthropocene’. The link between the distant past and our present predicament in always present, never overstated.
Reviewing books is a strange pastime, full of conflicting pressures. You want to be of service to the reading public, to tell people what the book is about and the audience it might appeal to. You want to make a judgement about the quality of the research and the writing, to comment on its relevance. You will also want to do justice to the author’s intentions, to the intensive work that goes into writing, to the discipline that is inherent in the writer’s life. Yet, as I read Kathleen Jamie’s book, these conflicting concerns quite simply disappear: from the moment of opening the covers, I find myself absorbed quite simply in the pleasure of reading. From time to time I surface, to ask my wife, Elizabeth, or whoever else might be listening, ‘What is it about the quality of this writing that is so wondrously engaging?’ When I check back to my review of Sightlines in Resurgence & Ecologist, I find I asked myself exactly the same question in 2012.
As I read, I find myself completely absorbed in Jamie’s world, as if I am experiencing it through her eyes and feelings, drawn into her point of view. Writing of her stay at the Yup’ik village Quinhagak, in the far west of Alaska, she describes the vastness of the tundra: ‘Land, every way one turned. From this small hill the tundra was laid out like a green sea, sedgy and subtle and glinting with secret melt-pools and waterways. It was land relishing its brief summer, open and free to breathe’. The evening before she catches the small plane on the first leg of her journey home, she walks out again: ‘I wanted to remember how the tundra grasses rippled, how the light, so radiant, fell from the sky’. I find myself remembering with her; and have the same feeling of being brought down to earth when she passes a discarded freezer full of garbage bags.
The writing is exacting in its attention. Jamie knows how to build a narrative that moves from detail to wider picture. She knows how to punctuate this narrative with a sharp comment. Yet it is deceptively simple: she doesn’t make a song and dance about style. She notes the attitude of archaeologists on Westray to their discoveries ‘An Occam’s razor. Don’t reach for a flamboyant interpretation when a more straightforward one will do’. Her writing as a similar quality, not reaching for over-clever metaphor when a simple account is more illuminating. The word ‘transparent’ keeps coming to mind as I reach for a description of her writing; transparent and luminous.
And now, as I leaf through Surfacing to find those places I marked with my pencil, I find I am also drawn back into the substantive content of her book: how things surface in memory and attention, how the past is relevant to the present. In this new time that we may call Anthropocene, who are we? where do we come from? where are we going? These are present questions for the people of Quinhagak, as white archaeologists arrive and excavate the village their ancestors abandoned. Feelings run high: ‘We need to get our history back! The Pilgrim Fathers never discovered America!’ exclaims one woman. Jamie tells how they respond to the uncovered artefacts, how their elders handle them and so recover memories and even lost words.
‘I was a teenager when I first became aware of the past,’ Jamie wrote in Sightlines; she had hoped for a career in archaeology, but it didn’t work out. Now on Westray, she spends time with a trowel working alongside the professionals uncovering a Neolithic village. After paying careful attention to a small square of earth, it is a shock to come back to the ‘vast moment of now’. She learns that early Neolithic farmers ‘were only a step away from the wild, and they knew it’. Would we moderns knew that as well.
And equally, what happens in one’s own mind as memories become buried and then surface: ‘You’re losing their voices… You’re forgetting the sound of your mother’s voice, and your grandmother’s… you realise you can’t quite bring their voices to mind’. And what is it like when one’s own father shrinks away before one’s eyes?
This is a book of quiet humanity that illuminates what it means to live in time, ‘contracting and expanding and turning round on itself’. I find myself reflecting on the short life span of the Neolithic farmers on Westray compared to my own 75 years: what does it mean for modern humans to have such a longer perspective? Are we using it well? Are we good ancestors? Jamie’s writing will, I suggest, stimulate questions of this nature in many readers.
Then, as I seek a way to end this review, I turn again to her writing, to the essay where she is absorbed in watching an eagle in flight: ‘There’s something about the authoritative way the bird is occupying airspace, a black hyphen above the near-bare crest of the hill’. The eagle is joined by its mate. ‘What marks them out is the way they treat the air: as a resource, as a birthright, theirs in never-ending abundance’
I chose these words to quote before I realized they contained what I wanted to say: There is something about the authoritative way Kathleen Jamie occupies word space that marks her out.
I am still a fan.
Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His most recent publication is On Presence: Essays | Drawings, with artist Sarah Gillespie http://peterreason.eu/OnPresence.html. His writing includes In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage (Earth Books, 2017) and Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea (Vala Publications and Jessica Kingsley, 2014). Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu and on Twitter @peterreason.
Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing (Sort Of Books, 2019). 978-1908745811, 248pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)