Book review: ‘Sightlines’ by Kathleen Jamie

A second volume of superb ‘nature writing’.

‘Sightlines’ by Kathleen Jamie

I first read Sightlines immediately after reading Kathleen Jamie’s earlier collection of nature/landscape/unclassifiable essays, Findings. They immediately became my two favourite books. I make a point of re-reading them every September during my late-summer holiday in Anglesey. Favourite books for favourite places. A long-awaited third collection, Surfacing, finally came out in 2019.

Jamie writes about nature like nobody else I know. She is a poet, with a poet’s eye for detail, and a poet’s knack for precision. Her prose is down to earth, describing things as she sees them, finding wonder where it belongs: in the real world.

Sightlines is an astonishing collection of essays, covering such diverse topics as a cruise to see icebergs in a fjord; a visit to a gannetry; a description of the light in February; trips to the Scottish islands of Rona and St Kilda; and the renovation of the whale-room (Hvalsalen) at the Bergen Natural History Museum.

Jamie redefines what we pigeon-hole as ‘nature writing’. In this collection, for example, she makes an itinerary of whale-jawbone archways, and pays several visits to a pathologist’s laboratory to inspect body-parts:

I thought ‘we are just meat’, then called it back. Flesh, bodily substance, colons and livers and hearts, had taken on a new wonder. If you had to design a pump or gas-exchange system or device for absorbing nutrients, you would never, ever, think of using meat.

Yes, exactly.

One thing I particularly love about Jamie’s writing is her unpretentiousness. She doesn’t claim to know it all; she is just an ordinary woman, with an observant eye, and an enquiring mind. While watching gannets with the ornithologist Tim Dee, she thinks she spots something in the water:

It was probably nothing, so I said nothing, but kept looking. That’s what the keen-eyed naturalists say. Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.

In some ways, Keep Looking would have been a more appropriate title for this wonderful collection of essays.

Go and read Kathleen Jamie immediately!


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