Published today by Elliott & Thompson, Nancy Campbell’s ‘Thunderstone’ — centred on losing one home and discovering another — demonstrates how we dance through the songs we are given, no matter how dark or troubling the lines may be, writes Kerri ní Dochartaigh.
‘Grief is the price of love. It is the terrible pact we enter when we agree to love a thing, and in all the happiness that might follow, it is there, waiting for us…Grief is, at its heart, about the other, the thing, person or place that is lost.’
‘The other day I heard a guy on the radio talking about prehistoric homes, and the particular way humans make home as opposed to, say, birds. It isn’t a penchant for decoration that differentiates us…it’s the compartmentalization of space. The way we cook and shit and work in different areas. We’ve done this forever, apparently. This simple fact, gleaned from a radio program, suddenly put me at home in my species.’
‘Do not turn away joy – even if it arrives at an inconvenient time, even if you think you should be grieving, even if you think it’s “too soon.” Joy is always on time.’
What does it mean to love? (a person, a place, a time, a thing)
What does it mean to mourn? (a person, a place, a time, a thing)
And are these even different things?
How might we love (these people, these places, these times, these things) we may — at any given moment — have to learn, in turn — to mourn?
What does it mean to grieve for things that aren’t quite gone (not yet)?
I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a writer who writes about these things as movingly, as gracefully — as beautifully — as Nancy Campbell. In her last book, Fifty Words for Snow, she turned her gaze toward a plethora of things: identity, history, landscape, language, nature and more; all with the tenderness of a gardener tending to a plot of land, the future of which remained uncertain. For to write a world of such unknowns as we face in these times; to find words for such loss & grief; such despair & worry — is to sow seeds into a stretch of land that might, when you return to water them, have been demolished in your absence. Thunderstone — the most personal, heartachingly intimate, life-affirming of her books so far — leads us into a whole new territory. We are being let in close here, so close we can almost hear the wild-flowers growing; watch them as they turn — despite the chaos and anxiety of the world outside, over and over — towards the light.
‘When the truth is told, everyone can share equally in a story.’
This book tells the story of a time all of us will, in one way or another, be affected by always. A time that changed us, and the world, and how we are in that world — forever. It is also a story of life after loss; of the love of small things; of art & food & travel & companionship. At its heart, though, it is the story of a strong, independent, caring person who finds themselves at a cusp moment — a difficult crossroads — and who takes the road (canal path) less travelled. It is about that person and their van, their safe space; their home.
Campbell’s partner has a stroke and needs round the clock support, right at the moment in time when their long-term relationship had begun to reach its natural ending. As we witness the slow, heavy unlearning that Campbell must go through — finding a new way to be in the world, in her home, in her self — learning how to care for Anna immediately after the breakdown of their relationship — the Covid-19 pandemic ripples beneath the surface; a harrowing, horrible, haunting presence. The balance she strikes between her own ordinary, everyday lived experience and the collective (both human and non) is exceptional; ‘Cherry trees blossomed…Children painted rainbows in windows…It did not rain. Questions arose: Can a paralysed limb feel pain?…People began to talk of things not ever going back to normal.’
Campbell is resilient and resourceful, finding ways to manage when it seems there could be no way through. It is far from easy, though, and she is haunted by the past even as she tries to focus her all on the very moment she finds herself in; ‘No one can choose what dreams they dream, or when the wake from them. I cannot leave these visions behind.’
‘I see something in Anna’s eyes I have missed, without realising it, for years…words are beginning to return…although some days they all disappear again. The mercurial nature of her language reminds me of the changeable character of circumpolar shores in winter.’ All of this, these small moments that amount to two lives being lived in newborn, quiet harmony, happens as the planet goes about it its unsettling, changing business; ‘It was the hottest spring on record again.’
Campbell cares for her partner until the moment comes when they both know they must physically separate, and she must find a small stretch of land on which to place herself. All of this amid a severe Housing Crisis. Her new friend Sven asks ‘What do you want with always moving from place to place? You need to settle down and get on with your life.’
How does Nancy Campbell respond to such overwhelming, scary uncertainty? With creative insight and with a zest for life, of course…She buys a van, clears the ground she has been offered, and builds a home.
‘I’ve just cleared enough ground to live on…The walls are thin as a Kinder Egg. There’s just enough space to stand up…I know the shelves will fill up with books and belongings and things from the woods. But now there is just one object I want to carry inside…It was believed lightning would not strike a house that held a thunderstone…I place it on the windowsill…its surface gleaming like cat’s eyes ahead of me on a dark road.’
It is not only the beautiful found stone of the title that plays a role in this book: objects of various kinds are important to her, their ‘Familiar softness, rescued from boxes to remind me of distant places and people I love. I buy a new duvet cover…hang my storm lantern over the window.’
The van, and all it holds, plays such a significant part in her life; acting as much more than simply a roof over her head. It supports, in some ways, her return, gently, to socialising; ‘Perhaps this van that everyone seems to believe is a boat on land will carry me gently back into the world.’
It could never be plain sailing, of course; life simply does not work like that, and there are still moments of pain; ‘All the homes I’ve ever had are haunting me here. All the potential lives I moved on from – the places I might still be.’
‘The howl hasn’t gone away…I realise with dread that this will be the work I do in the van, that grieving must take the place of other work for a while.’
There are references to various artists and writers throughout, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was particularly moved by her discussion of Denise Riley, whose work Time Lived, Without its Flow, about the aftermath of her son’s death was so important to so many folk I know who live in grief’s unknown, shifting landscape. I thought, over and over throughout Thunderstone, how important art is at times of sorrow, worry, grief, pain and so on. Nancy Campbell’s work has been such soothing balm for me at times; it feels good to know she has found comfort in the words of others, too.
One of the most touching threads in the book is that of friendships, particularly the ways in which others — those we know so well and those we have only just met — can become a lifeline in times of need; a way, in the words of Doireann Ní Ghríofa, ‘to star the dark’.
Whether it be the lift that leads to the somewhat unconventional friendship between herself and another carer Sven; the packages that arrive during lockdown from folk all around the globe — parcels of dried yarrow, seeds from Emily Dickinson’s garden etc; conversations about bees; food shared in the midst of freshly born grief — good people surround her, no matter how hidden away her new home may be.
‘The goldfinches and sparrows and the fox with half a tail are our only companions.’
The other than human is equally important on this healing journey as the human. Creatures play an exceptionally touching role in this book, always there to remind the reader of that world outside the caravan door; that world that keeps on keeping on, no matter what. The natural world is observed and recorded here with such delicate tenderness I wept at several lines, all out of nowhere. This one, for instance; ‘Cloudy. No sighting of the wren for days.’
This book is, as well as being a record of a specific time, a love letter to place. To Oxford and to the Arctic. To place in general, really; to those places that whisper to us from afar as we try to ground ourselves in places we might not necessarily wish to be — but know we must — if only for a wee while. ‘The sound of the trains is an assurance that other places still exist…I used to see travel as…the gardship I pressed my weight against to find shelter…The ordeal now is learning to stay in place. If I wait until my bones ache with the effort of stillness, what will come to me?’
And, as ever with her work, the circle of the year is the thread that ties it all together, worded in ways that leave me in awe; ‘Solstice. I dream there are silver keys and coins buried in the dark earth beneath the van.’
‘Surrounded by silver leaves, I wonder how sorrow and festivity might be written…The woods have the answer…but it will take time to draw it forth.’
I am a sucker for books that draw us into dialogue with their own selves, a kind of gothic, mirroring palimpsest. I adored how Campbell let us into the act of her creating — meetings with her editor, being asked to write words for the cover of a friend’s book, deadlines, money worries and so on. I found this level of honest reckoning with one’s bread and butter in a book both refreshing and inspiring, reminding me of Derek Jarman’s diaries, and more recently Sara Baume’s handiwork. It is not easy to earn a living in the creative industry these days, let alone when the very fact of a roof over your head is a constant worry. Cancelled work, publications, festivals and more going bust as a result of the last years, a housing, cost-of-living and climate crisis — none of these things help any of us to feel safe — perhaps least of all creative self-employed folk.
‘Some mornings I am a vessel that has hairline fractures running through it — I have to hold my poise gently, to avoid all the pieces falling, to avoid spilling. The pain of being in the world is almost unbearable, at the same time as I want more than ever to hang on to life. In the last few years I have seen how swiftly everything can be snatched away.’
Campbell is honest about the choices she has made and the impact they have had on her life; free from self-pity or regret. This book has inspired me in ways I am not quite sure how to word yet.
‘A baby’s cry. Of course — above gynaecology, maternity…Time compresses like an accordion. The slow tender note it plays is a blessing I send to my former self. I can see one bright star. My eyes will find others if I stay a while.’
In a narrative framed around the recovery of someone she loves, suddenly she herself becomes unwell, and it was harder to read of the illness of someone I have never met than I could ever have imagined.
I hope to thank Nancy Campbell for this book in person someday.
For giving us this humbling, honest, raw & deeply moving book that reminds us what it means to be alive.
What it means to be human, to be ill, to be in communion with all with which we share this earth. A diary of time spent in a van; time that changed a life. But really this gift of a book is about healing, love, life, how we dance through the songs we are given — no matter how dark or troubling the lines may be.
I’m changed by it, full of that thing that makes us soften to the passing of our own days. That thing that makes us waken in the morning full of hope — that drags us outside — weary, worried & wobbly — to check on the seedlings, to find the wren, to let ourselves by held by all that — without which we would simply not carry on.
We are human.
We howl and we hope, we lose but still we love; we carry on.
‘Thunderstone’ is out now and available here (£14.24).