Book review: ‘Ness’ by Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood

A haunting prose-poem (I think).

Ness

I’m not at all sure how to refer to this unusual little book. A prose poem, I think. It’s certainly prose, but it’s also bordering on poetry. It reminded me in many ways of Alice Oswald’s book-length poem Dart, which also contains numerous voices and characters, with a strong hint of the mythological.

I have to say, I struggled to understand what the hell was going on at first. It’s one of those books that take you a few chapters to get your head round what the author is playing at—after which it’s best to return to the beginning and start afresh. Which is exactly what I did. I’m glad I did. I’m pretty sure it’s one of those books I’ll keep returning to, getting a little bit more out of it with each revisit.

The Ness of the book’s title is clearly Orford Ness in Suffolk, a former weapons-research establishment, now abandoned to the elements, as famously featured in W.G. Sebald’s masterpiece The Rings of Saturn.

The narrative flips back and forth between ghost-like humans ‘worshipping’ in one of the old research buildings (the Green Chapel—a reference to the Gawain legend, I presume); and sinister(ish) mythological figures representing various aspects of nature (biology, botany, geology, erosion and deposition) gradually moving in to take over. Or, at least, I think that’s what they represent. As I say, it’s one of those books it’s hard to get your head round.

The text is illustrated by wonderful woodcuts by the artist Stanley Donwood, whom I was delighted to see receives equal billing on the cover.

Definitely a book to re-visit.

Recommended.


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