Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

 The first thing to say is that I do realise how useless I am at keeping up this blog. I am very envious of a friend who has written down every book she's ever read in a notebook (several notebooks? A bookcase full of notebooks?) - and yet I have utterly failed at writing a bit about a book just once every couple of weeks or so.

I'm not making excuses - well, I am - but I think it's because I read a lot, and as soon as I've finished one book, I start another. Plus, I sometimes have several on the go at the same time. And during this lockdown in particular, I've really felt the need for bookish worlds to escape into, one after another - and to stop to review each one just seems too big an ask. (Not, of course, that anyone's asking except me.)

But, I've just finished the latest draft of my work in progress and don't yet know what I'm going to write next, so I'm going to try and catch up a little bit. But of course, it's some while since I've read some of these books, so you'll have to bear with if if there's a certain lack of detail.


First up is Robert Macfarlane's Underland. Now, I have to confess that while I have read other books by Macfarlane, I haven't always round them easy to get into. Typically, I read a few pages or a couple of chapters, and think Oh, what beautiful writing this is! - and then find myself gravitating towards something easier. I do wonder if this is partly to do with being immersed in children's books, and in crime fiction. With both of these, the story is all. At the end of each chapter, there needs to be a hook which draws you inexorably into reading the next chapter. And you don't spend an awful lot of time writing description - there is room for it, and some children's books have mouthwatering descriptions - but it's subservient to the story.

With nature writing, the case is quite different. I think it's probably fair to say that with nature writing, observation and description form the bedrock of the essay or book. Other things will emerge, but that's where you start. So your expectations need to be different. You need to slow down, take your time, read carefully. Whereas naturally, what I do is gallop through.

However with Underland, it was different. It was gripping.

As you might deduce from the title, it's about exploring underground. It's divided into three sections, called the first, second and third chambers. The first deals with caves and tunnels in Britain; the second with undergound tunnel networks in Paris, Italy and Slovenia, and the third with caves in Norway, Greenland and Finland. 

The first chapter concerns the Mendips - of which the hill in the title of this blog is one. Macfarlane doesn't just desribe the landscape. He muses on it, reflects on it, explores it through a network of ideas and cultural references. Looking at this first chapter again, my eye is caught by this, from Sean, the friend who will be his guide to the Mendips: 

"This has been a funerary landscape for over 10,000 years. It's a terrain into which we have long entrusted things, as well as from which we have long extracted things." 

Macfarlane expands on this, illustrating the thought with lots of examples of ancient burials, in Austria, in Israel, in Somerset itself, and mulling over their significance. Then, he goes underground with Sean. There is climbing over wet rock, there is the rope getting stuck, there is squeezing through narrow passageways. It's all quite terrifying - especially when he tells the incredibly sad story of a caver in the Peak District who got stuck in a narrow gulley and could not be got out. He's there to this day. So nightmares come true.

And this is the pattern of the book: erudite musing about the historical, philosophical, cultural or scientific significance of what he's seeing, alternated with jaw-dropping accounts of dangerous descents. I confess I'm a complete wuss: scared of heights, depths, deep water and narrow spaces. So I'm fascinated by the exploits of someone who is clearly not any of those things. And I am interested in caves, because of something I've been writing. And the writing is beautiful. So, yes, I was hooked.



Sunday, 10 January 2021

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, by Natasha Farrant

 I noticed the other day that this book, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, has won the children's book category of the Costa award, and so I decided to send for it. The afternoon it arrived, on a cold grey day when the obvious thing to do was to curl up with a good book, I settled down on the settee and got stuck in.

It's 352 pages long, and other than getting up to make a cup of tea, I barely looked up until I'd read it. It's that entertaining.

Set just after the First World War, it's about two orphans, Lotti and Ben. Lotti's parents, wealthy, charming, and very much in love, both with each other and with their little daughter, are killed in a plane crash. Lotti inherits their beautiful house and their money - but her guardian is her ghastly uncle, Hubert Netherbury, who is a cruel bully who wants to enjoy her house and money and, seeing Lotti as an inconvenience, packs her off to an unpleasant boarding school.

The story starts when she is twelve. Having just run away from school, she meets Ben and they become firm friends. Ben's background is far less privileged. Having spent his early years in a horrible orphanage, he is rescued by Nathan, a kindly barge owner. Nathan comes across Ben and his older friend Sam and, moved by their plight, takes them in. However, a few years later the war intervenes. Sam joins up and is injured. Nathan goes to France to see him in hospital, and is killed in a bombing raid: Sam is missing, presumed dead.

By coincidence, the hospital is close to the village where Lotti's beloved grandmother lives. Strangely, she has lost touch with her grandmother; though she has written many letters to her, she has never heard back.

But then various things happen which convince the two of them that they have no choice but to run away - and to where else but that village in France? And in what but Nathan's old barge, the Sparrowhawk? With them are their two dogs, which help to move the action along nicely.

The charm of the book is largely in its characters - not just Lotti and Ben, but their supporting cast of friends and helpers. They are generous, spiky, kind, practical, funny, brave, and Natasha Farrant tells their stories with crispness and panache. It's not all spun sugar: there are instances of real cruelty, there's jeopardy - and there are quite a few deaths.

When you start to write books for children, someone will point out to you quite early on that you need to devise a way to get rid of parents. Otherwise, how can your child heroes have the adventures they need to keep readers turning the pages? Back in the olden days, Enid Blyton did it with a flourish: off the kids would go to boarding school, and in the holidays to Kirrin Island. Convalescence from a serious illness was another goody, as with Will Stanton in Susan Cooper's The Grey King. Or there's always a wardrobe. Natasha Farrant ruthlessly wipes out , not one, but two set of parents here. (Interestingly, I heard Frank Cottrell Boyce on the radio the other day, talking about the Moomins - and he pointed out that in the Moomin books, this doesn't happen: the family is at the centre of the books. Each member is important, and when an adventure is afoot, the parents aren't necessarily left out of it.)

All that aside, this is a wonderfully readable and exciting book: perfect for distracting children - and yes, adults too - from these rather dreary days in which we find ourselves.

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