Orwell’s Herons – 22 July 2023

The non-fiction book group this month is reading Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit. It is a book I find myself carrying around with me: a talisman. I want to read it in every spare moment. But I do not want to finish it. I place myself wholly in Rebecca Solnit’s hands, with little idea of how every branch of the roses connects to a root yet firmly in the belief that it does.

What’s it about? Well, Solnit writes:

There are many biographies of Orwell, and they’ve served me well for this book, which is not an addition to that shelf. It is instead a series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses. As such, it’s also a book about roses, as a member of the plant kingdom and as a particular kind of flower around which a vast edifice of human responses has arisen, from poetry to commercial industry. They’re a widespread wild plant, or many species of plant, and a widely domesticated one, with new varieties created every year, and when it comes to the latter, roses are also big business.

Roses mean everything, which skates close to meaning nothing.

A series of forays, then. But so much more. Forays, I think, are short-lived. Not so, the subject matter of Orwell’s Roses.

With each section Solnit begins on a variation of, ‘In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.’ ‘Writer’ is replaced with ‘man’ and later with ‘Englishman’. Then, ‘In the year 1924, a woman photographed roses.’ Later, ‘In the year 1946, a dictator planted lemons, or rather ordered them planted.’ Thus begin the explorations of politics, of writing, of gardening, of ecology, of class, of exploitation which form this thorny aromatic book.

When did I last read something with prose I want to hold onto like this? I ask myself several times a page. I ask it usually whilst glancing up at the roses outside my window. They scratch my scalp and catch my clothes whenever I pass by. And yet sparrows dart through them unharmed.

To the reader, I offer below a few new books which I hope stand up to the writing of Rebecca Solnit. To the writer, I offer her wisdom:

Writing is a murky business: you are never entirely sure what you are doing or when it will be finished and whether you got it right and how it will be received months or years or decades after you finish. What it does, if it does anything, is a largely imperceptible business that takes place in the minds of people you will mostly never see and never hear from (unless they want to argue with you).  


The opening lines of four new novels to tempt you:

A Little Luck by Claudia Pineiro
“I should’ve said no, that I couldn’t go, that it would be impossible for me to make the trip. Whatever excuse. But I didn’t say anything.”

Kit by Megan Barker

Will you write with me?

Shall we hold hands?

I know I am only high noon like this for a limited time.”

Ordinary Human Failings by Megan Nolan
“Down in Skyler Square, the trouble was passing quickly from door to door, mothers telling mothers, not speaking aloud but somehow saying: baby gone, bad man, wild animal.”

Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead
From then on whenever he heard the song he thought of the death of Munson.”


Two excellent and unconventional books on art:

  • Thunderclap by Laura Cumming explores the keen sense of loss she feels for the works of Carel Fabritius, the majority of whose works were destroyed in the explosion referred to in the title. Though other explosions too are central to this lucid and deeply-felt book. One surviving painting will be well-known to many, especially readers of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch(Non-heron birds are allowed.)
  • Art Monsters by Lauren Elkin is a wide-ranging examination of female artists who centred bodies in their work: juicy, unruly, joyful female bodies. Was there a patriarchal whisper in their ear trying to limit their creativity? Or is there a different story to be told here?

Matrescence by Lucy Jones
The vast psychological, physiological and social change of becoming a mother has been neglected in science, medicine and philosophy. The brain, the body and the psyche undergo significant transformations; Jones writes about these a science writer, as a memoirist and, as someone raging against anyone who might claim that new mothers should enjoy every moment.

Exiles by William Atkins
Fresh out in paperback, Exiles weaves together the stories of three dissidents, all exiles, all drawn to the idea of and search for home. It is empire which dislocated these three – Louise Michel, Lev Shternberg and Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo – and empire which they must defy, even though it outlasts them.


The Eyebrows of Doom by Steve Smallman, illustrated by Miguel Ordonez
A pair of eyebrows are on the loose leaping onto unsuspecting animals and causing them to behave outrageously. Can they be stopped?

One Chance Dance by Efua Traore (ages 9-12)
Ten-year-old Jomi runs away to Lagos on a quest to find his mother. Things are not going well until he makes some friends and they come up with a foolproof plan: get on TV by dancing on a television talent show.

Sing If You Can’t Dance by Alexia Castle (young adult)
A double bill of novels featuring jubilant dancing: Ven has high ambitions and she is going to make them happen. But then she collapses on stage during a dance. Suddenly, even walking is hard. How can she come to terms with her disability and find a different path?

In all that glorious prose, of course I would never neglect poetry. I have just read Velvel’s Violin by Jacqueline Saphra (thank you to the great author of Sax Burglar Blues for the recommendation). It’s a raw and deeply affecting collection about the nature of history today and the legacy of the holocaust. One of the poems is entitled ‘is the madness caused by the poetry or is the poetry caused by the madness.’

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