Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: August

Kerri ní Dochartaigh | 3rd August 2022

Book of the Month for August is Amanda Thomson’s ‘Belonging: Natural histories of place, identity and home’ — a memoir about having and making a home, and a love letter to the northern landscapes of Scotland and the Scots pinewoods of Abernethy. Published tomorrow by Canongate, its poetic, loving, raw writing renews Kerri ní Dochartaighs obsession with the world.

‘If you are where you are, then where/are those who are not here? Not here.’

[Natalie Diaz]

‘You who wander are not lost. 
Home is wherever you are right now. 
Everywhere you go is where you live.’ 

[Victoria Adukwei Bulley]

I began reading Amanda Thomson’s lilting, tender new book in the final days living in one house and finished it in transit — on a ferry crossing the Irish Sea — on the move to a different house. It was the perfect companion for such a liminal time given the artist and writer’s fondness for all things in-between, fleeting, thin (if I may.) I had only just handed in a book about the meaning of the word home. Belonging sang its stories out to me from anywhere I tried to set it down, so poignant and powerful did I find it. Only once before have I underlined so many lines in a book, and that other book was Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass

There’s a bittersweet tension between humans and nature that is sometimes balanced, sometimes lost.’

Thomson attends to the act of being alive through the intentional paying of deep attention — through really looking — in a way that made me think of the poets Mary Oliver and Nan Shepherd. Observation and the mindful recording of things — seasons, lives, changes and more — is shown as an act of deep care. And care is such an important word in this book; how we choose to treat those — both human and non — around us is held up as possibly the most important choice we could ever make. I was profoundly touched by her gentle probing into female identity within her blood line; what, or who, the women in her family may have been had they had a wee bit of respite from the relentless giving of care.

As early as the prologue, the concept of intergenerational identity is introduced as a key theme: 

‘I love the idea…how that which is no longer with us can make us who we are and can be a continuous source of strength or comfort.’ Later this is picked up again; ‘I think of these people of my past who are with me still…I have a longing for something that is a part of me, but I can no longer return to it, or them, or that time.’

Who we are; where we came from; what we are supposed to do; with whom — ‘Identity is invisible as well as visible, and it can be what you hold to your heart. Notions of it are slippery…as are notions of home.’ 

Thomson’s childhood is depicted and dissected so truthfully and tenderly. There are some parts of the book that I realised on second reading I had completely forgotten. Sections about cousins or an Uncle or a car or a dander up a hill. At first I was a little thrown by this (I have an almost photographic memory) but then I grew to understand that this is simply how the passing on of history — any history, but possibly family history in — works. I homed in on very specific details of the author’s sharing of details. The minutiae you will be drawn to in these stories will be very different from mine. Memories, like stories, like people — are as different from one another as trees — and just as interconnected.

Nature was just what I knew’, she writes — a touching reminder for so many of us that felt more at home in the natural world of our childhood than in any other place or time since then.  ‘I was in the middle of it without knowing there could be anything else.’ I would question if perhaps Thomson has managed, somehow, to hold this humbling wisdom close enough to her that she still understands — as we all once did — that there isn’t, in fact, anything else. 

Thomson writes of the natural in a way I have yet to encounter before. There is no real hoo-haa, no flowery description of which to speak yet somehow, I came away with that ache inside me — that renewed obsession with the world that is only borne of a very particular kind of writing — poetic, loving, raw. On watching a bird ringer hold Coal tits she ‘saw how delicate they were, how easily they could be broken.’ This line, so quiet and unassuming, has affected me in ways whole books have not managed to. Or how she talks of desire, of longing, in relation to the natural world. There is no artifice, no saccharine coating here — ‘I want there to be a capercaillie just in the woods off to the edge of the path, but there is none.’ 

The absence feels more important than any presence could.

We all, I truly believe it to be so, have our very own Grief Is the Thing with Feathers story (count this retelling as yours if you have found yours somewhat lacking…) and I loved reading of Amanda Thomson’s experiences with corvids. I think many folk will, too. On part of what makes these birds compelling she writes ‘Perhaps it is their very blackness, and their other(ed)-yet-connectedness…They speak to our humanity…In old Scots…To sit like a craw in the mist is to sit in the dark.’ 

‘Questions of difference and discrimination can often relate to what it is to feel at, to be at, home. What are the conditions that make you feel safe and secure…What is it to belong?

Thomson reflects on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on things such as access and safety in an unsentimental, impactful manner. This, coupled with the huge issues of racism, police violence, Brexit, Climate crisis, folk fleeing their homes in search of safety, has changed the way many of us view the concept of home. Thomson is a queer Black woman, and the care she takes in outlining the way definitions work on a person — boxes to be ticked or not — is deeply affecting; ‘how either/or categories don’t quite work’. This book is, in many ways, a quiet but mighty challenging of the stories we tell ourselves and others about where we belong, and with whom. Talking of where, Thomson writes place like no other. ‘I’m drawn to edges and margins…inside and outside, within and without. Outwith’, she tells us. ‘There’s nothing marginal about any place if you’re from there.’

Her gratitude for the place in which she has found herself is evident throughout, and I found it profoundly moving. In particular I was drawn to the way she described how her interaction with the natural world benefitted from the changes in daily life brought about by staying in one place during lockdowns, specifically how she observed things outside her home; ‘These things happen every year; I just had more time to see and note them.’ 

It is not just the actual house in which she dwells, or ‘stays’ (such a glorious Scottish phrase that I miss so much!) that Thomson celebrates in the book, rather the whole land — every place of which she writes feels a form of love letter. A description of time spent on Canna had me greeting (IYKYK); ‘My race, gender, class, age…seemed to fall away…I was…just human.’

One of the most exceptional things Thomson manages in this book is to express how nourishing and important it is for her to be in the natural world without this coming across how it often does in books of this kind; ‘Walking and birdwatching have provided me with a grounding and often, somehow, a solace, perhaps a place where I could be myself or I did not need to think about who I was.’ 

This line is perfect; really and truly this is a perfect, perfect line.

(Why is it so hard to write a love story of moths & plants & coaltits & mountains & rivers & critters & snow & fungi?)

Thomson makes an important point about how essential it is to see your own experience reflected in the world around you — the world of images, words and more — and I am certain this memoir will mean an awful lot to an awful lot of people for this very reason.

Her life as a visual artist is woven delicately throughout the book, images alongside the text, and it made me hungry to learn more about how these two parts of her creative core relate to each other; how she relates to them, and to the world she explores through them, in turn. 

In microbursts, a collaborative work for prototype published last year with the writer Elizabeth Reeder, Thomson explores the way in which a piece of art — an image of any form perhaps — can dance delicately alongside the written word. In that hybrid book, photos, charts, font, fragments line drawing etc sit beside loss, grief, love, identity and so much more; showing us that — like life — creative work does not slot into individual boxes we might easily pack up. It shapeshifts, bleeds out — an accidental rainbow on a child’s wet page, reminding us that genres — like people, places, creatures; the whole living world — are much more connected to one another than we may have long accepted. This sense of interconnectedness ripples through Thomson’s work on many levels but perhaps mostly it lives in her view of home. These words, from microbursts, are Reeder’s but I feel echo Thomson’s, somehow; ‘Don’t ask me about home. One, many, none.’  

There are exquisite sections of Scots dialect, thematically arranged, throughout the book, prompting me to return to the book that introduced me to her in the first place — A Scots Dictionary of Nature. 

I searched my shelves high and low for my copy, certain I would not have parted with it; so impactful had it been on my own words on language, identity, belonging. I realised, in time, that I did not in fact own a copy (I have rectified this situation…) How, then, did I have so many quotes copied out in my notebook? Notes from the time before the world changed entirely. Like this exquisite line; ‘Words pull us together across borders and times.’ The notes turned out to be from a visit to Glasgow, when I had got to sit in a wee nook of a bigger room, over a big aul’ motorway, surrounded by possibly the most beautifully curated bookshelves of my entire life. The gorgeous creation of visual artist and writer Christina Riley; the place I found Amanda Thomson. This may seem like an unimportant, random thing to mention in this review but really it means an awful lot to me and speaks, on a multitude of levels, to the way in which I hold Thomson’s view of home, of belonging. You see, I felt so at home there in that wee nook, not just because of the soothing atmosphere nurtured by the curator, but thanks to how safe I was made feel by that book — Thomson’s first. I felt so comfortable that when I looked back I was not alone in a grey room, in an unknown city, on the cusp of one of the most difficult periods of my life. No, when I look back, I was in my own home; a place not quite held together by walls; in a time unaffected by the occurrences of normal life in all its unstoppable chaos. 

Times are hard, of that there is no doubt; ‘Sometimes it’s all we can do just to be here’. 

This brilliant book, just like her first, reminds us what home can really mean, if we will only open ourselves up to the places — geographical, emotional, political, historical, personal — we inhabit. 

That home that we hold inside us. 

That home that no person, place, time or thing can fuck up. 

Take me back.


‘Belonging’ is published tomorrow. Buy a copy here (£16.13).

Later this month, Amanda Thomson appears in conversation with Jessica Gaitán Johannesson and Roxani Krystalli at Edinburgh International Book Festival. More information here.