It’s a little late one for part 1, sorry! Between family gatherings and a bout of the dreaded lurgy, time seems to have slipped through my fingers once again. Spring feels like it’s finally creeping around the corner here in the UK, in between rain showers and frosts. Blackbirds and blue tits have been busying about the garden, song floating tentatively through the windows as I sat and read this last few weeks. It’ll be summer before we know it. Maybe.
Anyway, I’ve enjoyed a nice variety of books once again! Canals, canoes, trees and rivers all feature in this fortnight’s book review…
Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield**
-Once Upon a River is a mysterious tale of a young girl, returned seemingly from the dead in a stranger’s arms, one dark night. A wonderfully woven tale, rich in detail, with something magical throughout.
-In The Swan pub, on a dark winter’s solstice eve, people gather to tell stories. Storytelling is seen as a serious business, with pubgoers learning their craft fuelled by alcohol, camaraderie, and the reactions of their peers to the stories they tell. The importance of story as a theme is intricately woven through the book – not least in the search for the identity of the little girl, who is claimed by more than one family as their own.
-I absolutely loved this book – it is a captivating mix of folklore, suspense, magic and mystery. The story wasn’t ‘just a story’; there was always a sense of something other, something more, tantalisingly floating just out of reach. Each character was someone I wanted to know more about – from the storytellers in The Swan pub, by day gravel-diggers and boatmen, to the ghost of Quietly, who is said to appear to those in trouble on the river. Folklore and superstition are common throughout the book, and as a huge fan of the ‘not-quite-explainable’ I loved the effect this had on the story.
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben
-I’d been looking forward to reading this book for months, having read rave reviews and being generally convinced that trees know a hell of a lot more than we give them credit for. This book is full of wonderful snippets of information, although sometimes relayed with a good dose of anthropomorphism alongside.
-Drawing from his experience as a woodsman and forest manager, Wohlleben is able to give us real-life examples of the behaviour of a forest, which was fascinating. Instead of viewing each tree as individual, the forest itself is a living, breathing organism, with many unseen layers. Beneath the ground, trees communicate, support each other, and swap nutrients. Each species has it’s quirks and foibles, and Wohlleben talks about them as old friends.
-I learnt so much from this book – the differences, not just in planting, between man-made and ancient woodlands. How forests change over time, and what would happen if suddenly, they were just left to their own devices. The individual growth habits of different species. What happens after a tree dies. So much! I learnt to think in ‘tree-time’ – the lifespan of a forest can be millennia. Overall, the book wasn’t quite what I was expecting – the author attributes human-like qualities to the trees often, and (maybe because I’d just finished reading ‘The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life‘) I found it hard to accept that trees ‘feel’ and ‘sense’ just as humans do. In spite of this, I enjoyed the book as a whole and I learnt a lot!
Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery, by Alys Fowler
-A strong, heartfelt journey along the canals of Birmingham in a packraft, Alys Fowler’s telling of coming to terms with her truth is a beautiful, evocative read. The story flows along with the water, deep, many-levelled, drawing us in with stories and curiosities met alongside the canal banks.
-I appreciated the bravery of Fowler, as she takes the step to live true to herself, navigating through heart-wrenching days, showing the strength of friendship, the lament of love lost and found, and the value of nature in giving us something to get us through. However, I felt as though the author was still holding a bit of herself back – the flowing descriptions of the wild, of nature, tended to contrast with the human element, as though the author found it hard to write about the deeply personal in the same sort of prose. Maybe this resonates – it’s easy to feel comfort amongst nature, where there is no judgement, no guilt. Self is defined by interactions with others – and these parts of the book felt at times awkward, even cold. We can examine the minute detail of mosses and lichens, but choke when applying that level of examination to our human relationships.
-I liked this book – the more I think about it, the more I seem to see. The descriptive pictures conjured up of the canals, of the love for the area and the nature that lives there are a joy. Like the packraft, the writing flows along in eddies, sometimes diverting to describe an interesting species or place before continuing on the gentle flow of water. A story of quiet revolutions, and a reminder that sometimes they are the strongest.