Caught by the River

Unmentionable places

Kerri ní Dochartaigh | 23rd November 2019

What happens when land comes to life? What would it take for land to need to come to life? In their new collaborative book Ness – just published in its main edition by Hamish Hamilton – Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood have made a minor modern myth. Kerri ní Dochartaigh reviews.

‘Shut up & listen, though, will you? Really listen.’

I’m making my way towards a large iron monster of the sea. The monster is a vessel – a sea-faring, nausea-inducing box of a thing. It has been made by man, for man, to be sent over foamy, folkloric waves; liquid shapes made by something very much other than man. I take out another metal object, made by man, shaped and moulded for the same; a hand-held communicative device – and my ticket for passage on the monster is scanned by another machine, held by another hand, with another beep from another metal bowel. 

I am setting sail from Eire to Alba at the breaking of the dawn, just as the calendar’s light has made its way into the measure of the winter; ‘fall-en back, like an old keeper of the sea, the man in the moon as it wanes, a drunken sailor, or like a man overboard. We are moving into the true darkness of this year but this ship is cutting through a horizon flooded with light. For as far as I can see, gold drips down, like the liquid our breath makes with its in and out, in and out; like the ebb and flow that only human lungs can trigger – full of sleep, and darkness. It is here – held inside this metallic monster, itself held in place by the unknown depths of the sea – that I will spend time with Macfarlane and Donwood’s Ness. There could be no place – no unplace, rather – more befitting in which to read this unsettling, hauntingly beautiful creature of a book.

This is Macfarlane’s second book this year. Where Underland was thick and vast; a palimpsest marker of deepest and deepening time, Ness is thin – as though it could not fill a hole in your tooth; as though it would still leave gaps in the perfect black hagstone it gives us at its opening.

Place and character are of equal centrality in this prose poem (can this book even be placed into any genre?) and each left me shaken; bereft even, and maybe more-so with each harrowing reading. Place: an unidentified, broken concrete structure on a shingle island –  a ruin being claimed back by the land and sea; ‘The Green Chapel’. Characters: a being named ‘The Armourer’, and five time-sculpted forms other than human, not quite separate from one another –  more than what we view as real; ‘it, he, she, they, as’. Also, though – place: our planet – characters: our race; simply.

As for style, there is stupendously fine use of internal rhyme, characterization, sentence shaping and dialogue – in as much as there can be anything close to ‘conversation’ in such a place, with such individuals as we have. I see Macfarlane’s work as a cross-breed between an eel and a derelict brutalist building; so much beauty alongside slippery – sometimes concrete – other times liquid – magic. Ever-shifting like the tides but as constant in its unrivalled greatness as the moon.  

And what of the gorgeous use of the Ampersand – that symbol that once was viewed as if it were the 27th letter, pronounced as the Latin et or later in English as and. The alphabet would end in “X, Y, Z, and per se and” if this was still in the usage it once was. Like much in Ness, I am thoroughly affected by its spectral presence – something once lost in a way – now the chalky bones of a set of paragraphs it was almost made to keep in place; I am unsure why this simple wee inclusion feels like it means so very much but it does.

How to even attempt to sum up a plot? What happens? What does it even mean? What is hidden under, between and inside of its rings? I have not quite broken all of the data in Ness down into chunks that I can swallow but I am trying. I do not want to ever stop trying. We could mention Sir Gawain, an incredible range of Irish, Icelandic and Nordic writing; we could peel back layer upon layer after layer…but this saga is one so entangled in our current moment that it becomes a circle of meaning on the horizon rather than a line of history in the shingle.

Like Holloway – co-authored alongside Dan Richards – the sense of needing to return to this book over and over is there ab ovo; even at first glance I already have it placed in a part of my shelves from which I can gain easy access. And it is a thing of beauty, this man-made thing I am trying to pin down in words; as though it were a moth caught by hands that both love the insect, and want to take it for their own. This book will not make its way towards my net; I stand, trying to lure it into my web, as though I, too, am an insect – but it flees from me. It is too otherworldly, too disarming in its arresting and unrivalled beauty – too paper-thin in its exquisite delicacy to be placed inside any frame. 

Stanley Donwood’s presence here is felt as fully as it was in Holloway. The head, hands (and so much more) behind Radiohead’s album covers, Donwood resides in the part of the creative woods that is often referred to as ‘Cult’.  His work is integral to the look and sense of Underland too but here it is visceral; without his delicate, almost spectral drawings, Ness could have an entirely different impact on the reader. The black line drawings are superb, sublime – they etch themselves on my insides as though they are making carbon paper of my skin. I am in the market for my next tattoo, and am increasingly open to the idea of his lighthouse, one of his hagstones – or one of the otherworldly depictions of the bleak landscape he and Macfarlane are conjuring up. In a piece on the Penguin site, Robert Macfarlane has written that ‘Many people around the world wear tattoos of Stanley’s art, some of them in unmentionable places’, and I think about the idea of having such an unmentionable place as what they have depicted here; in an equally unmentionable place on a human form. 

I message a little with Dan Richards as he travels – in an effortlessly elusive, track-slider of a machine – to London for the launch of this disarming, crepuscular creature of a book. He is a friend but also he is a way-marker for me; a writer who may be known for his far-flung journeys but one whom I view as an indicator of solid and stable ground. Throughout the worrying change the past months in my homeland (in the whole turning world) have spat out at my feet, I have spoken with Dan. About writing and reading, crows and bears; trains and ferries – cats, dogs, rain, light, gigs, cheese, the good people we both know, tangerines and illness, land and rivers; we have talked of childhood, and of growing up. I want to know what he thinks of this book that has so deeply affected me; this work by two individuals (that he has closely worked alongside) and that I know we both admire; this fabled, horror-tinged love song that has undone me, a little. I realise, as we message, that it is in this that the unbreakable magnificence of good art lies. Yes, we may encounter it alone – we may come home from the cinema in pieces, or go to bed hollowed out after finishing a book; we might lie on the floor after the first listen to an album that alters the lay of the land on our insides forever – but we are not really by ourselves in those moments. Our understanding of the world we are in – this world that we are so inextricably, so despairingly and detrimentally a part of – is changed by experiencing the vision of it through the eyes of another member of this race. And wanting to explore those revelations – in the case of ‘Ness’ – a reckoning of the Anthropocene, with those around us means; at least to me – that we are still alive. We are still here, and not just to damage and destroy. We may be standing in the bleak, near-barren wreckage of a living thing but we still feel the shivers down our spine that means we still give a fuck. We still see the gothic pink hues of a moth as it charts its path above nuclear debris. We are listening to voices that call ourselves out as a race – that put us in the firing line and ask us ‘what do you do now, what do you do; what do you do?’ And we are talking to those around us about these questions; we are asking ourselves what we do next – what path we must tread to try to stop the bruising and the burning; the bullying and the breaking. 

In the fifth part of proceedings in The Green Chapel, the Engineer tells the Armourer that they are sinking to a place far from the day and its light; ‘Thought is, language is, turning to shingle.’ The Armourer – in spite of the burying and the encroaching darkness – insists that they continue with the firing song; the song for the bomb is still sung. It really is a case of ‘getting the bomb done’, sometimes – for some people; I suppose. Either that, or dying in a shingle ditch. 

An utterly surreal twist of affairs – much too odd to find words for, really – meant that during writing this I was given a copy of Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature by a man without a home – in return for a full English breakfast. There really was no better book to read alongside Ness. There was a moment of unequivocal coincidence too –  in the same hour –  with Kathryn Joseph and an elephant hawk moth, too but I am holding that wee one close for a while. Sometimes it still shocks me that we do not see how utterly connected to one another, and to this resplendent, heart-breaking world, we really are. In Modern Nature, Jarman writes from his home, Prospect Cottage – in the shadow of the nuclear monster; ‘To whom it may concern / in the dead stones of a planet / no longer remembered as earth…at the sea’s edge / I have planted a stony garden.’

Donwood and Macfarlane have done an unthinkable, incredible thing with this ghost-trace, bog-buried, palimpsest of a book, and I am changed for experiencing it. The stones in this book – for me – are far from dead. They have been planted in such a way that when I think of them, I think of the fact that we have done so much damage to this planet but that there is still room; a wee gap in the stone – through which to see a better way. 

‘Moths are clustering and flocking softly in vast numbers around the bomb, settling on it first as snow might fall on land.’

I cannot offer you a neat and palatable summary of this book. Neither can I really compare it to much that will quantify or define it. I thought of Max Porter’s otherworldly (but utterly worldly) Lanny, of Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring, of much of Heaney and Oswald’s inimitable grappling with the classics but these are, as Ness is – each their own translation of the land on which we stand; of the ones with which we share it.  Maybe this is not really a book review, and maybe it is not really just a book; this thing that Macfarlane and Donwood have formed for us. 

I loved Ness in a way I haven’t really loved a book since childhood – it felt like being told the most devastating, life-changing news – all the while being held in the safest place you know; soothed by moths making winter on your skin.


Ness is out now and available here, priced £14.99.

Kerri appears at our next event – taking place in Bristol on 6 December – where she will both read from her own work and appear in conversation with Max Porter. More info and tickets available here.