underland
Robert Macfarlane
Underland: A Deep Time Journey
Penguin, Hamish Hamilton 2019
ISBN 0-241-14380-3

Robert Macfarlane writes in the introduction to this quite extraordinary work that although we spend a lot of time gazing at and thinking about the sky, the stars, what’s overhead, we seldom if ever think about the worlds below our feet. Macfarlane opens up those worlds, each chapter a meditation on different spaces in the underworld, from caves in the Mendips to a deep burial site for nuclear waste in Norway.

In the chapter “Invisible Cities,” about the Paris catacombs, he describes a work by Walter Benjamin, an “unfinished meditation” on Paris. He writes that its form “may be compared to a constellation or galaxy, the individual stars of which he drew together over more than a decade, collecting notes, quotations, aphorisms, stories and reflections.” Much of the same could be said of this work, although it is certainly not incomplete and has enormous power as its fragmentary narrative comes together as a whole. His narratives encompass the beginning of time and potentially its end, as he meditates in the final chapter: “At Boulby [where scientists search for Dark Matter] then encased xenon in lead in copper in iron in halite in hundreds of yards of rock in order to see back to the birth of the universe. At Onkalo [where they bury nuclear waste] they encased uranium in zirconium in iron in copper in bentonite in hundreds of yards of rock in order to keep the future safe from the present.”

His style is poetic, often almost incantatory, and over the course of the book he allows us to feel how awe-inspiringly alien and powerful the world of the underland is and at the same time how fragile. It is hard to choose a “most extraordinary” of all the extraordinary stories. I was captivated by the notion of a World Wood Web: the connecting tissue of fungus that joins woods and forests and allows them to share nourishment (and perhaps memory). Also fascinating was the story of the “urban explorers”: groups of probably crazy climbers and cavers who map and explore the subterranean tunnels of cities. So many images capture the imagination: the story of the catacombs under Odessa where even the hardened and experienced explorer of Paris feared to go, especially dangerous, she said, for a woman. The whisper of “dark matter.” The notion of “nuclear semiotics”: a mini-think-tank of people trying to find the best way to warn explorers in a future unimaginably far forward in time not to open the vault in which is stored the most radioactive of the world’s radioactive waste, enough that were it to explode it would destroy the world 30 times over. How do you say “do not touch” to the future, especially when so many of our myths are about opening that forbidden box?

All his stories are layered with other stories: myths, works of literature, true stories of climbers or cavers or explorers or scientists. He writes of the difficulty of writing about the impossible changes and loss brought about in our present era, the Anthropocene, commenting that it is perhaps best imagined as “an epoch of loss – of species, places and people – for which we are seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope.” He offers hope in human relationships, in shared goals, in storytelling. This is a powerful and beautiful book, in some way an elegy for our time; let us hope it will last through to a more hopeful epoch than ours.

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen Books, 2016
ISBN 1476781222

Layout 1It would make sense for Lois McMaster Bujold to bring the Vorkosigan saga to a close as it began, with a novel focussing on Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. If this is, as it feels, a kind of coda to the series, it is a very satisfactory one: gentle, leisurely, affectionate of its characters and of human foibles, more comedy of manners than space opera, despite its science-fictional cover.

The titular “Red Queen” is Cordelia; “Gentleman Jole” is Admiral Oliver Jole. The action begins three years after the death of Cordelia’s husband, the formidable Aral Vorkosigan. Very early in the novel there is a revelation about the nature of Oliver’s relationship to the Vorkosigans (we have known him as Aral’s military right-hand-man), which seems to have sent one group of Bujold fans into a bit of a tizzy, but which made perfect sense to me and did not seriously undermine what has gone before.

Cordelia has some plans for her own future and some ideas about Oliver’s. Eventually Cordelia’s son Miles turns up, family in tow, and eventually revelations and decisions are made and immediate conflicts are resolved.

As I said, this is a very gentle book. I loved it, because I love the characters, have been a loyal follower of the series and am happy to see things apparently resolved as they have been. This is not to say I would not welcome more, and Bujold has provided us with a “next generation” who could carry the torch, but I think she has gone as far as she wants to go with both Miles and Cordelia, and this novel adds a very fitting grace-note to the series.

A Song For Ella Grey
David Almond
Delacourt Press, 2015
ISBN 0553533592

24836168Magnificent. This is an extraordinary piece of writing: haunting, beautiful, achingly sad but completely unsentimental. Watch out, because I’m going to be pushing this novel to everyone I know now. It’s hard in a way, having read what I suspect will be the best book I read in 2016 in the first week of January.

I read it in one almost completely uninterrupted sublime gulp. You can read it quickly, because you get swept away by the power and rhythmic force of the language, but you will also want to go back and reread, re-experience some of those lyrical tour-de-forces of writing. The tone and timbre captures the voice of the English north without ever falling into caricature or making the reader trip. If I say it is “poetic,” you will think “flowery,” but it is not: it is achingly pure, precise, not a single word out of place.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has been inspiring poets, artists and musicians for centuries, millennia. Somehow, Almond makes it new, infuses the power of the ancient myth into a contemporary world. Nor does he shrink from the violence of parts of the story, but somehow without ever mis-stepping, crossing the line into banality or excess. One thing I like is the ordinariness of the young characters. These are not disaffected or damaged youth. This is not a “problem” novel about teenage pregnancy or drug addiction. These are intelligent, self-consciously artsy, slightly bohemian young people on the cusp of adulthood, with all their restlessness and questioning and yearning, insecurity and brashness. What happens when you expose such young characters to love and beauty and art in their most ideal forms, reified in Orpheus? That it is a tragedy is not a spoiler if you know the story; what is unexpected is the joy that underlies the grief. But that is the power of the myth and of this novel.

It is a song. It is a masterpiece.