The Books and the Heron – 13 January 2024

In these rather chilly January days (it’s a two hot chocolates per afternoon kind of a temperature) I have enjoyed escaping to other realms in film, theatre and books.

I won’t detail my foray into film too deeply: The Boy and the Heron has beautiful music and sparing, careful dialogue but I was somewhat troubled by the heron… If you’ve seen it, you’ll know why. Not quite the elegant creature one thinks of when standing on one leg.

A highlight was Lemn Sissay’s adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis at Bristol Old Vic. The experience was especially resonant having read My Name Is Why, Sissay’s account of the abusive childcare system he suffered through and of being rejected by his foster parents. It was also, in its own right, fascinating, stunningly choregraphed and totally weird.

Today I woke up to see that the author Mieko Kawakami has named Kafka as her comfort read. Sure, I thought. Comfort read. I might have said Dodie Smith but here’s what Kawakami regards as comforting: Kafka’s works, “contain the truth that despair is neither something to be detested and shunned nor a sudden misfortune, but a natural condition for human life.” I grant that Kawakami’s answer is better; I can’t stop thinking about it.

So, to books. I wrote about Orbital by Samantha Harvey when it first came out and I have been drawn to it again to watch as six people on the International Space Station contemplate existence over the course of one day. (The “day” for them involves 16 orbits of the Earth, 16 sunsets, 16 sunrises, many monotonous tasks and a deep wave of awe.) And it does feel like one is watching them: Orbital toys with ideas around perspective, questioning the relationship between a picture, the picture’s creator and the picture’s observer and leaving it to the reader to muse on applying these ideas to the experience the book offers of gazing at these people while they gaze at the Earth. I am so moved by the looping, joyful writing and the questions Harvey asks of individuals and communities.

Quite different escapes are offered by:

  • Inland by Gerald Murnane: Like Orbital, this is a book one reads for the glorious prose and intelligent engagement with the relationship between writer and reader. Unlike Orbital, the reader has no idea where they find the narrator. At first he claims to be in Hungary, writing to his editor and translator who is in Ideal, South Dakota. But this is artifice and the reader is being mocked. Or is she? If you like Italo Calvino, Claire-Louise Bennett and grasslands, this is the one for you.
  • Argylle by Elly Conway: On a very different note, if you’ve finished the latest Mick Herron and Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Ian Fleming and need a spy thriller hit, this looks great fun. Rumours that it was written by Taylor Swift should be shaken off.
  • Blood Red by Gabriela Ponce: This is a visceral stream-of-consciousness of the raving and bloodied aftermath of a failed marriage. A very dark escape which will swallow you up, mercilessly. Even the cover makes me shudder…
  • The Vast Extent by Lavinia Greenlaw: The perfect essay collection to read after Orbital, Greenlaw explores the interaction between art and science, how we can describe what we see and what we cannot see. She shines light into caves, literal and metaphorical, and lifts the reader out of themselves to look at the world more clearly.

Meanwhile, the following titles force a firm and stark return to earth:

  • Not the End of the World by Hannah Ritchie: Ritchie is a data scientist and optimist arguing for a pragmatic and positive approach to addressing environmental issues such as air pollution, deforestation and biodiversity loss. The book is full of solutions to these issues and pairs well with books like All We Can Save offering hope, but only if we take action.
  • The House Divided by Barnaby Rogerson: In this history of the 1400-year-old split between Sunni and Shia, Rogerson argues that to understand the effects of the divide today, one must understand its origins. This is a book that sweeps across continents and centuries covering subjects of huge complexity while being readable and engaging.
  • Was It For This by Hannah Sullivan: Three extraordinary poems, the first of which, Tenants, is for the victims of the Grenfell fire, drawing on material from the Inquiry, and all of which engage with home and finding our place.

I’ll end with a recommendation which forms a balm to despair and returns to the theme of spectacular perspective: Snail in Space by Rachel Bright and Nadia Shireen in which Gail has big dreams of being the first snail in space. A picture book full of the adventure and magic one needs in winter.

Hope to see lots of you at Poetry in Herons this evening.

May your weekend be transformative, but not the kind of transformation that turns you into a Kafkaesque cockroach,