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Book Review: Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

Jamie links the life-changing trials of middle age with the natural world and lost communities in these subtle, wonderful essays.

Kathleen Jamie’s third essay collection, Surfacing, is a quieter, gentler work than her earlier volumes: 2005’s Findings and 2012’s Sightlines. It’s perhaps fitting – this is a book mostly written in, as she puts it, “late middle age”, when her children have grown and the view back is longer than the view forward. Surfacing is the literary equivalent of the slow food movement: writing that may describe momentous events – the death of Jamie’s father; her own cancer diagnosis and treatment; a 500-year-old massacre; the 1989 Chinese student demonstrations that ended in Tiananmen Square – but does so in a manner that is sidelong, subtle and requires a degree of readerly patience.

There’s no doubt that this is the work of the same author as those earlier collections, though. First, there’s the quality of the noticing eye, the poet’s ability to look deeply at a landscape, a person, a situation, and then to summon it on the page with what Robert Lowell called “the grace of accuracy”. Then there’s Jamie’s particular talent for nature writing, the way that she weaves eagles, ragwort, snow buntings, caribou and all the rest of the natural world into her prose so that they lose the otherness that can distance them from our experience. Nature in Jamie’s writing is immediate, domestic and, well, natural.

The surfacing that gives the collection its title is a constellation of several meanings. This is a book full of archaeology: the revelation of the deep past in the present moment, the peeling back of layers of history to reveal the stories written into landscapes. It’s also the way that memories surface, suddenly and seemingly randomly, until more profound reflection reveals echoes and affinities between seemingly unrelated points in time. It’s this deeper logic that connects the 12 essays in the collection, so that meaning is passed like a baton from one to the next, with each essay planting the seed of the one that follows. It makes for a book whose impact is accretive and, eventually, astonishing.

Kathleen Jamie: a life in writing

The two longest essays in Surfacing both concern archaeological digs, one in Quinhagak, on the far west coast of Alaska, the other on the Orkney island of Westray. In Alaska, under “a ravishing, energising light”, Jamie throws her lot in with a group of students and researchers who are excavating a 500-year-old village, Nunalleq, where, years before the arrival of European settlers, a Yup’ik settlement (the Yup’ik are still the dominant First Nations people in the area) was razed to the ground. Jamie is brilliant on the past: there’s a moment when she excavates a former trapper’s house and reveals not only the floor but, frozen into it and only released by Jamie’s trowel, the smell of 500-year-old seal meat, “the smell of mince and tatties, staple dish of my childhood”.

There are more contemporary pleasures here though. Several exquisite passages record Jamie either alone or with her friend Melia, sitting and looking at the light on the landscape, and simply recording what she sees. The reader waits with her and, like her, we notice more, learning to look at the world more closely. “After 30 minutes or so, I could see colours better, until the haze distorted them. Details emerged. How had I failed to notice the three grass stems next to my right knee, bound together by a ball of spiderweb? When a pale bee entered a fireweed flower, it was an event.” It’s an education in close looking, a demonstration of Jamie’s prose at its mindful best.

She brings the same revelatory eye to the Links of Noltland on Westray. A recent storm has revealed a 5,000-year-old Neolithic settlement to rival that of nearby Skara Brae. The Orcadian essay is divided into three sections, the last of which is written in the second person and seeks to reconstruct imaginatively the lives of the inhabitants of this ancient place. It’s wonderful writing, testing the limits of nonfiction, and seems to be the launchpad for the more impressionistic, personal later chapters of the book.

About Yusuf Mwesigwa

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