The Philosophy of Rewilding – on George Monbiot’s Feral

This is a re-post of a kind of review I wrote elsewhere, thinking about the philosophical thinking that might stand behind George Monbiot’s Feral, a well-written, well-researched book arguing that we need to ‘rewild’ our lands, our seas and ourselves.

His contention is that our world has gradually shifted away from its wild state as we have sought to domesticate and control it. Lands have been stripped of forests and the ecosystems they supported. The seas have been stripped of its plant life. And we are more disconnected from nature and risk than ever before. We should, he says, reintroduce native species, leave the land and sea alone, live wilder lives.

It’s a polemical book that works on two levels: first person stories about a wilder life pull at the emotions whilst its thorough use of zoological research hits the brain.

There is not, though, any theoretical or philosophical reflection in Feral. Monbiot refers to, and quickly dismisses, the political movement known as ‘anarcho-primitivism’ which wants us to move beyond civilisation and regain our previous wilder lives. And he touches fleetingly on some of the societal and political implications of rewilding. But nothing more. And that’s not a problem – philosophy is not his focus and, after all, you can’t cover everything in a book.

Nevertheless, a look at the philosophy of rewilding would have provided an interesting, different and perhaps more complicating perspective

Rousseau, for example, was big on the link between humans and nature for example. For him, there was an original ‘state of nature’ in which humans were free and happy and which have been stripped away through our politics, states and organisation.

Monbiot isn’t arguing that we should return to some kind of ‘state of nature’ but that we should reintroduce elements of the wild (native species, more risk and so on), which would create something new, wilder and less predictable than our current world.

Nietzsche’s thinking is a bit more complex. Humans are very much part of the natural world, he says, and this is manifested in the repetitive, unimaginative and frankly unremarkable lives most people lead. The concept of the ‘herd mentality’ – which he uses to refer to people’s conformity to mass values – is emblematic of this.

But Nietzsche also has his beloved ‘uberman’: the person who isn’t confined by nature’s limits but lives a striving, creative and remarkable life. This person, in a way, exemplifies the kind of wild life that Monbiot wants.

The problem is, of course, that life would be very difficult if everybody lived like this. Monbiot, in fact, points out that it would not be desirable for everyone to uncontained lives not bounded by laws or moral standards. That’s not an issue for Nietzsche, who says that not everybody is capable of this kind of life anyway: it’s only for the select few, the great.

A less radical and more egalitarian view can be found in Thoreau and one of his interpreters, Jane Bennett.

Thoreau, of course, is known to have given up with civilisation for a year or two and retreated to Walden Woods where he built himself a hut and lived a ludicrously simple life. He documented his daily life so we can all enjoy the mundane existence and occasional insights into the links between human and natural life.

Bennett has a very nice concept that she finds in Thoreau’s writings: ‘the wild’. By this she means those parts of existence that can’t be contained or captured, which elide explanation.

There is always an element of ‘the wild’ which exceeds things she says: it’s those desires that can’t be kept in check, for example, those flowers that appear through cracks in the concrete. The thing is to recognise that ‘the wild’ is always there and, rather than contain it, embrace it.

Embracing ‘the wild’ also appears to be a theme in some of the most prominent critical theory today – in the work of Zizek and Badiou, for example. I can’t imagine either would have any particular interest in the environmental debate about rewilding. But I can imagine that a shift to a world where people live wilder, more risky land radically different lives would appeal to them.

Zizek’s concept of ‘the act’ and Badiou’s ‘event’ are both about people, collectively, deciding they want a change and trying to bring it about without knowing what it will result in  – in other words, they are about people taking a risk.

There isn’t, as far as I’m aware, a philosophy of rewilding. It’s not hard to see, though, that the ideas of Nietzsche, Thoreau, Zizek, Badiou and I have no doubt many others (Aristotle Spinoza, Deleuze, as well as recent thinking in philosophy of mind about panpsychism…) would add an extra, though not always unequivocal, dimension to Monbiot’s call to rewild our lives.

“Drunk-stumbling in their own blood-murder, Mord proxies growled from fang-filled snouts a language that none had ever heard before, articulated even as they slaughtered, thoughts and desires that had never been expressed in the city, that were beyond even Mord.”

Jeff Vandermeer, Borne

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens and Homo Deus

In these two big, broad and thought-provoking books Harari takes us from 3 200,000 years ago when humans began their evolution, to now, when advances in technology may lead to Homo Sapiens adapting themselves out of existence.

In the first of the two books I realised just how little I know about the origins of humans – how a whole range of Homo species evolved in different parts of the world, how Homo Sapiens came to dominate, how they quickly wiped out large animals like giant sloths and mammoths, and how we’ve continued that pattern to now.

In both books he then looks at three major changes that are in relative infancy but will evolve, and quickly:

1. Organic upgrades to humans that allow people to survive illnesses or perform tasks better. This could be anything from the medicines we have to the engineering of babies to transplants to new organic limbs that replace existing ones. The scientific developments are happening at such speed that we are already seeing people become less like the humans we’ve known for tens of thousands of years, and the advances are coming thick and fast now.

2. Non-organic upgrades that allow people to survive illnesses and perform better. Just like organic upgrades, we have these already – pacemakers, body monitors, synthetic limbs. Again, these are developing at such speeds that our political institutions and ethical governance around them can’t keep up. Harari cites sci-fi-like examples of arms that can be controlled by the brain, a pancreas that can regulate blood sugar via a smartphone app. It won’t be long, he says, before human abilities far surpass those we have now, and much of Homo Deus focuses on how these developments might play out, making people superfluous, or giving a small elite control over the majority of people.

3. Super intelligent machines that gradually replace people. It sounds like a fantasy but it’s considered reasonable among many in the scientific and philosophical community that in time, not yet but in the next two hundred years or so, we will have created machines that are so far beyond our ability that we will all become superfluous. We see this already with so much: computers that can process data and make better decisions that we humans can, for example, which will gradually replace our jobs. At the very least these machines will start to play a tremendous part in our lives. But more than this, those computers might well begin to develop their ability to programme themselves, to operate independently. Artificial intelligence could easily become more important than consciousness in considerations of what’s if value in the world. There’s a theory put out there by some physicists that it’s likely that in the future we’ll have developed machines that are able to create artificial worlds, and there’s likely to be far more of those worlds than there is the one we live in, and so it’s already more likely we’re part of an artificial world or game now than we are living an actual ‘life’ as we understand it.

Obviously this isn’t a perfect book. Clearly Harari is no fan of liberalism, humanism or religion, but he does seem to be a techno-utopian; though he is worried that the developments in science and tech are happening so fast, we – and especially politicians – are unable to keep up or even see them, he seems to think the changes are almost inevitable. At no point does he flag up problems like climate change or the depletion of natural resources as a problem, I guess because there’s an assumption in here that scientific innovation will overcome those problems – which is far from certain. To me it seems more likely we’re at a crossroads – either we’ll enter a kind of techno utopia / dystopia where humans will adapt themselves into uncharted territories, or we’ll be thrown into a less developed world where many of the modern developments and conveniences we’re accustomed will have disappeared.

Nevertheless, this is such a thought-provoking book, everyone should read it. You can’t help but come away thinking differently about the past, the future and ourselves.

The lost performance of the high priestess of the temple of horror – Carmen Maria Machado

A short story that combines a carnivalesque Parisian atmosphere with hints of de Sade and weird fiction that is above all, just brilliantly and beautifully written.

Set in early 1900s Paris, it’s the story of a young woman – who isn’t called Bess but might be Aisha – who leaves her home after her mother’s death and becomes the assistant of the avant garde actor Maxa.

Maxa performs an edgy theatre nightly in which she is attacked and apparently injured, screaming the theatre down to the terrified delight of the audience.

Bess becomes a faithful assistant – the most favoured of a few helpers – and spends most of her time with Maxa, cleaning her up, tending to her, and begins an occasional sexual relationship with her, alongside Maxa’s disgusting male lover Marcel.

Eventually Bess writes a play for Maxa which is performed just once. It was a horrific plot that requires the audience to rescue Maxa from an attack on stage which, when it is performed, results in the death of the woman who stands up and tries to save Maxa.

Two things stand out about this startling short story. First the language. It brims with beautifully constructed metaphors and descriptions, and conjures up such a sense of the era and the carnivalesque excitement of experimental theatre. The characters and the plot are interesting but really it’s all about the language and style.

Second, it’s a story of a woman’s descent into depravity, losing herself in the mad world of others to deal with her feelings of loss lostness, but then going beyond it. Bess is lost after her mother dies and gives herself up to the weirdness of Maxa, Marcel and the theatre; revels in it even. But gradually she grows in confidence, writing her own play and eventually confronting Maxa, and then leaving her. It’s hinted that some of the subversive desires stay with her, but she removes herself from the sad world of Maxa.

“He was mealy and pale and perpetually damp; something one might uncover by inverting a stone in a garden.”

One of many rich descriptions by Carmen Maria Machado, The lost performance of the high priestess of the temple of horror – in Granta 150

“What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include… fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very term ‘human’ into question…

“If the curtain is indeed about to drop on Sapiens history, we members of one of its final generations should devote some time to answering one last question: what do we want to become? This question, sometimes known as the Human Enhancement question, dwarfs the debates that currently preoccupy politicians, philosophers, scholars and ordinary people. After all, today’s debate between today’s religions, ideologies, nations and classes will in all likelihood disappear along with Homo sapiens.”

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind

Enlightenment Now – Steven Pinker

This isn’t my standard read – a mix of social science, psychology, philosophy and science that aims to defend some of the dominant ideas of our age that, the author says, are under attack.

Essentially Pinker is arguing for four ideas that we’re established during the Enlightenment and are the guiding much of Western society: rationality, science, progress and humanism. The mix of these, he says, have resulted in a society where quality of life measured by everything from wealth and health to peace are so much better than ever before.

These ideas may come under attack from theists, cultural Marxists and nationalist populists, he says, but what these critics are denying are some gains that can be evidenced over the last couple of hundred years – esp the last 70 years – and not just in the West but in fact all over the world.

The truth is it’s hard to deny what he’s saying when you give it perspective – contrary to the many detractors of science, it’s gains are amazing. As he points out, it’s likely that science has saved around 300 million lives from small pox alone!

He puts the attacks on Enlightenment values down to psychological processes and currents that mean people are less likely to apply rational thought to their reflections on the world – we don’t look at all the evidence, we look for information that confirms current biases, we want to belong, we want easy solutions, etc etc.

But at the same time his book tends toward an ‘End of History’ like view of the world that, I imagine, he wouldn’t really advocate. I’m reminded of David Graeber in his brilliant book on bureaucracy when he asks why all the hopes of science and technology seem to have been channelled into incremental improvements to iPhones. I think Graeber misses a lot too, but the interesting point he’s making is, with so much potential in science and communication and economic growth, why isn’t the world better? Why hasn’t the potential been used to create a more equal society, say? At times it seems as if Pinker is saying let’s not criticise the amazing progress we’ve made without recognising what else there could be, how the world could be even better, if the world had the Enlightenment values been applied differently.

In so many ways though, I think Pinker is right – the Enlightenment ideals have made a tremendous difference to people’s lives. And in particular he is right, more than anything, to advocate that that we shouldn’t forget them or take them for granted – all of us, by using reason and balance in our arguments, weighing up evidence, using numbers rather than assumption, by being more measured and rational in our analyses of the world, can help ensure that we reach better decisions with better consequences.

The Outsider – Albert Camus

Apart from having one of the finest openings to any novel, this is a wonderful piece of fiction dealing with what is ultimately a tragic way of responding to the arbitrariness, the absurdity, of life.

Mersault is a you man living a simple life somewhere in Algeria, going to work, to his favourite cafe, socialising with neighbourhood friends and meeting his girlfriend Marie on Sundays.

His life, though, is characterised by indifference. Almost everything he can take or leave, seeing no special reason to do one thing rather than another, whether that’s marry Marie, help his friend Raymond get away with hitting his girlfriend, or mourn the death of his mother.

The story is propelled by two events. First, Mersault’s mother’s death. Much of the first part of this short novel focuses on his interactions with people as he organises and attends the funeral. Most importantly, he doesn’t display the emotions of sadness and grief expected of him. In fact, the day after the funeral he meets Marie and takes her to see a comic film, not even mentioning his bereavement. The second event is when he shoots an Arab man on the beach, a man who Raymond had a beef with and with whom they had had an earlier confrontation. The killing is not particularly premeditated or cold-blooded, more done on instinct while feeling he’s the heat of the day and the sun is in his eyes. He’s as indifferent to the killing as he is to everything else in his life.

The book then shifts to prison and the court. In prison Mersault is again ambivalent about his fate, until almost the end. He gets used to his life there, seeing it pretty much comparable to life outside. It’s only when he’s sentenced to death that he begins to appreciate life, to realise that though life may have no externally given meaning and therefore appear absurd, he had created meaning himself and the desire to keep on living then kicks in, albeit too late.

He is sentenced because he did in fact kill the person and because of his character – because of his indifference to life, his lack of emotional warmth evidenced by not crying at the funeral, and because his disinterestedness led him to a friendship with the unpleasant Raymond, a friendship he never denies but certainly results in him being in a situation where he could kill.

It’s a sad book, of a young man who instinctively finds life pointless – not awful, even occasionally pleasurable, but pointless; and it’s only when it’s too late that he realises life doesn’t need to have some massive meaning to be worth living.

The Outsider is an impressive depiction of Camus’s philosophical position on what gives meaning to life. It’s bleak but ultimately answers the question. The niggle, of course, is the unnamed Arab. On the one hand Camus isn’t exploring the Arab as a character. But you can’t help wondering whether there’s a current of racism there that allows Camus to focus on the implication of that person’s death because he was an Arab and so isn’t seen by Camus as a person, as more object than subject?

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo

An astonishing book. The breadth of scope, the characters, the subtle politics, all combined with the sheer readability, well, you can see why it won the Booker prize.

It’s the stories of 12 people whose lives overlap, all of them black to some extent, and all born women, though one of whom doesn’t consider themselves a woman.

We meet Amma, the radical lesbian theatre director; Dominique her fierce friend who somehow ended up in an abusive relationship; her kick-ass daughter Yazz; a childhood friend, Shirley; who taught Carole, now an investment manager; and LaTisha who is finally making something of her life after a tough start; Winsome, Shirley’s Mum who keeps a big secret from Shirley; and Penelope who taught with Shirley, and had a crush on Bummi, Carole’s Mum; Megan/Morgan who fights their gender; Hattie, their grandma who has a farm in the north east and has a surprising connection to Penelope; and Grace, Hattie’s mother.

Each chapter gives a third person account of one of the twelve characters, giving only their perspective. In doing this Evaristo covers over a century of experiences of black women, from the nineteenth century to the Windrush generation to the social media generations. We get Winsome, who travelled with her husband to Cornwall to try to get work as a fisherman, only to be hounded out by the racist views of the locals. And we get Megan, whose life is hell until she discovers the trans community and that she doesn’t have to be defined by her gender.

By having a chapter on each character Evaristo is necessarily quite broad brush in its treatment of them, but it allows such a brilliantly wide account of black women’s experiences and, because of the overlap between the characters, it is rich in both personal detail and the wider social and political context that they live in.

What was carefully done too, was the way Evaristo uses this approach to tease out the complex and often unspoken secrets, and sometimes connections, between the characters – things that have happened to a person, or things they’ve felt, which they have never shared with anyone – a horrific experience that prompted Carole to change her life so much for the better, and sexual experiences for Bummi that she could never speak of to anyone. The point she brilliantly demonstrates is that you can never fully know other people, they are always ‘other’ as the title hints at, with inaccessible experiences and knowledge and feelings.

The writing style is of note, too. It’s in the style of narrative poetry as much as novel, a form of writing Evaristo was known for earlier in her career with The Emperor’s Babe. But not in a difficult poetry kind of way. It’s the kind of writing that you can storm through, reading it in great gulps, as the intrigue unravels, like a cross between Ali Smith and Joyce Carol Oates. Or something.

The point is its brilliantly readable, full of fascinating characters and a political awareness that is pointed but subtle. Go read.

The Stone Tide – Gareth E Rees

Another intriguing work from an excellent author, which is as much an exploration of himself as of Hastings and the limits of reality.

Rees and his wife and two kids move to a creaking old house in the town, and quickly his wife sets to doing up the house, and he begins his daily walks of the area, discovering its history and eccentrics like occultist Alistair Crowley and inventor John Baird.

There’s no particular structure to the book, which is a reflection of how Hastings unravels for Rees, and how he himself seems to be unravelling. Like much psychogeographic writing, it’s about the discovery of surprising things whilst on ‘derives’, or undirected walks, and this is where he stumbles across caves or old buildings and weirdnesses.

Like other psychogeographic writing, too, it blends the minutiae of place, the intricate historical details and people, with big questions. In some psychogeography its big political questions like the privatisation of space. In this book it is more the question of what reality is, and how our current reality is so thoroughly shaped by things that can’t be seen or touched, like history or magic or ghosts.

What elevates Rees’s writings, I think, though are its constant moves to fictionalisation and memoir.

The fictionalisation comes regularly through the book, with Rees essentially riffing on the real-life historical discoveries he makes and creating short stories – something he did regularly in his book Marshland too, but is more random and haphazard in The Stone Tide, so much that you don’t know where reality ends and fiction starts. The stories are often just a few pages along, and border on the surreal, though don’t maybe have the elements of horror and weird fiction that were more apparent in Marshland.

The memoir comes regularly too, and is probably the most captivating part of the book. There’s a few bits to it – his struggle to keep hold of reality and recognise what’s happening outside himself is a big part of it, and one that becomes increasingly important.

There was the death of his friend Mike twenty years earlier, in St Andrews, which continually haunts Rees as he explores the coast of Hastings; the sense that he hasn’t dealt with the death or what he thinks he ought to have done to prevent it happening, is really powerful and moving.

And there’s his relationship with his wife Emily, which gradually falls apart over the course of the book, in part because of obsessive wanderings and his focus on the ghosts of his life and Hastings.

As with Marshland, I’m not entirely sure whether this memoir is fictionalised or not, but that’s beside the point – in fact, the thin veil separating fiction and fact, history and the present, and life and death, are what this book is all about, and so it makes sense that its hard to know.

“My daily walking was essential. It was how I got my ideas and my sense of place. Without walking I was the blinking curser on a blank computer screen. A writer without a story. A father with nothing to tell his daughters. A husband who talked of taxes and efficient methods of dishwasher stacking while enduring a constant, silent worry about bacteria gnawing him to death from the genitals upwards.”

Gareth E Rees, The Stone Tide

The Snowman – Jo Nesbo

This is a classic work of Scandinavian crime fiction and an absolutely gripping page turner; the words, the events and twists pass at astonishing speed.

It features Harry Hole, the troubled and slightly narcissistic detective, who is on the pursuit of an apparent serial killer – ‘the snowman’ – who kills women around Norway and leaves a sinister snowman as a motif.

It sees Hole pursuing a series of leads that take him from suspect to suspect, as the murder count racks up. There are time jumps over long decades to help explain the motives of different people and their actions, and although the voice of the author doesn’t change it moves between characters very few pages – part of its gripping allure.

I won’t go into the plot other than to say that there are range of characters and suspects, including colleagues and people close to Harry – Katrine Blatt, Mathias, Arve Stopp among others. In fact, as is often the case in this genre, the gruesome ending involves the people closest to Harry, embodying that idea of the link between the serial killer and the star detective that is often mythologised in fiction, and of course in Harry’s mind.

The Snowman is a great read but something bugged me throughout, and it’s the portrayal of women. All the victims are women, they are accused of being whores, and the non-victim women are generally weak characters – interesting but without any real independence from their circumstances. It’s true that the men in the book are hardly beacons of autonomy but what they do generally have is some element of power over their own actions and over others; something which the female characters lack. So the book perpetuates exactly the stereotypes that we need to fight.

On the cover are comparisons to Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, but precisely because of this treatment of women I think that’s wrong. Larsson’s books are all about the abuse that men do and the way women resist, whereas Nesbo lacks any portrayal of resistance. So, you know, a good book, a page turner, but too cliched to be more.

The Girl in the Spiders Web – David Lagercrantz

The fourth in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, written by a different person, but as good if not better than the previous three. This is just great thriller writing.

It’s another complexly plotted story of espionage and secrecy that highlights the corrupt networks that span government, business and criminal enterprises.

The story kicks off with the murder of Frans Balder, an AI specialist who is apparently killed for what he knew about corruption at the heart of the machine. His son, August, witnesses it, but is a highly autistic savant who can’t speak but, it gradually transpires, can draw with a photographic memory as well as do ludicrously complex equations.

Cue Salander and Blomkvist to the rescue. Salander heroically saving and protecting the boy, coaxing him out of his silence. Blomkvist gradually unravelling the complex mix of Swedish and US intelligence agencies, tech firms and Russian gangsters to discover the truth.
We also get plenty more Salander back story, in particular her beautiful but dangerous sister Camilla who is heavily involved in the attacks on Balder, Salander and Zander, a young journalist at Millenium.

Despite being written by Lagercratz rather than Larsson it’s entirely in keeping with the original style – descriptive, matter of fact, with unbelievable but compelling characters. In fact, the style is sharper than the original, with the whole book written in short bursts of pages on each of the many, many characters in the novel, all of them gradually moving to the dramatic conclusion.

“The stores became more eccentric as you went in. There was a shop that sold soap shaped like celebrity torsos, a mapmaker peddling joke globes and plots of cities that didn’t exist, one that sold defective merchandise, and another that offered only models or reproductions of other commodities.”

Eric Lundgren, The Facades

“Imagine any record released in the last couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary , what would be likely to shock a 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next 17 years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of sounds between the 1960s and 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be.”

Mark Fisher, ghosts of my life

The Complex – Michael Walters

This is an intriguing and quietly powerful book. A lot happens and nothing happens. It’s menacing and tense. The characters, though largely unlikeable, are oddly compelling. Above all it’s disturbing because everything that’s wrong in this world is never explained.

The set up for the story is pretty simple. Gabrielle and her husband Leo are heading out to a house in the middle of a forest to spend a holiday with Gabrielle’s client, Art, and his partner Polly and daughter Fleur.

Almost immediately the tension ramps up when they apparently hit a deer before they arrive, which they then think has actually been shot. The relationship between the two men, Art and Leo, is strained from the start too, when they challenge one another to a tennis match – a fantastic scene that really allows Walters to dig into their characters and the animosity between them.

Things get progressively worse [spoilers here]. Sexual feelings develop between Leo and Polly. Leo suspects that Gabrielle and Art are having an affair. Stefan falls for Fleur. Gabrielle gets completely lost and disorientated in the woods. Stefan gets charged by a deer. Leo gets lost in the basement tunnels of the building. And so on.

But the intrigue is really what’s not explained. What happens, but is unknown to the reader. 

The story is set in a near future where everything is connected to some kind of grid. They have travelled from The Areas to this remote location, though we don’t what that’s all about, only that they’ve left the grid behind and so risk losing connection and everything stopping working. Or that’s the implication.

VR is a common feature, and most of the characters spend some time in virtual reality, almost always a disturbing experience. Technology doesn’t come out of this book well, but neither does the wild of the countryside.

Art meanwhile supplies a cocktail of drugs to Gabrielle and I think Polly, apparently helping them but also controlling and trapping them, showing that patriarchy and power are just as strong in this future as now.

Nothing is fully clear. It’s not quite a dystopia, but the technology and drugs just hang menacingly, a sinister backdrop to the personal dramas playing out in the house.

Sleeping in flame – Jonathan Carroll

What an intriguing and in the end gripping read; part love story, part fairly tale, part fantasy horror.

Walker is an actor living a good life in Vienna, who meets Maris, a woman who is fleeing from her violent ex, Luc, and who Walker first helps protect and then falls in love with. Their relationship develops fast and we get a lot of their back stories in the first hundred pages or so. In fact for the the first third of this books it reads like a fairly conventional love story.

But then something strange starts to happen: Walker begins to have premonitions of things to come, he discovers the grave of someone identical to him who has been dead thirty years, and gradually he learns he can perform magic.

He begins to explore this with the help of a cynical and thoroughly modern LA shaman, Venasque, who shows Walker that he is the reincarnation of many lives that his dreams are allowing him to remember.

Eventually, after Maris and Venasque are put in danger, he learns why: echoing the horrors of Rumpelstiltskin, his father from hundreds of years ago wants Walker to return to him and threatens everything he loves in order to make that happen.

It’s a gripping read, the characters are strong, and it’s quite hard to characterise this book – it’s thoughtful about so many of aspects of modern life, as well as showing how our past is weaved into our present to create who we are.

What’s most impressive, though, is the gradual shift from an apparently conventional novel to a work of fantasy, one that takes place over a couple of hundred pages until the end when you’re in a world of pure imagination, and it feels right and brilliant.

On the beach – Nevil Shute

In a time of climate emergency and fear of global pandemics, On the beach is an unsettling and understated read.
Written early in the Cold War it portrays the world after a nuclear war has taken place. Human life in the  northern hemisphere has been destroyed and radiation sickness is gradually creeping across the rest of the world. There are only months left for the those who remain.
The story is set in Australia and centres on a few people. Dwight is the last US naval captain, his boat now based in Australia. His family is back in America, all dead we can only assume, but he talks longingly of getting back to them, buying them presents while away, while knowing there’s no hope.
Peter and Mary, and their daughter Jennifer, are Australians. Peter ends up working with Dwight. And like him, they continue their lives as if they have decades ahead of them, planning their daughter’s future and planting the garden.
Moira is a single woman who befriends Dwight. A heavy brandy drinker (obviously), she’s also kind and great at making things happen for herself and others. She lives a life of leisure but chooses to work on her family’s farm as well as party regularly.
John Osbourne is a scientist who works with Dwight and Peter. He becomes obsessed with a Ferrari. Fuel supplies are short, people don’t drive any more, but a race is organised. He joins tens of other amateur racers in a Grand Prix in one of the most intriguing and disturbing scenes – a race in which most of the competitors crash and die because they are novices, but do it willingly because they only have weeks to live anyway.
With the background of worldwide nuclear destruction we get the minutiae of their lives, and how their stifled lives and relationships are changed – or not – by their imminent death. It’s the wanting to carry on as normal, to pretend they have their lives ahead of them, that is most insightful and, ultimately, sad.
There’s an odd treatment of women in this book – Mary is portrayed as a helpless housewife unable to face reality without her husband and Moira the independently wealthy, bolshy younger woman. In this respect the book is very much of its time.
But in others – it’s portrayal of nuclear holocaust, the details of what that means for everyday life, the emotional responses people have – it was very much ahead of its time.

“It’s not the end of the world at all,” he said. “It’s only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

Nevil Shute, talking about nuclear holocaust but channelling climate dystopia in On the Beach

Autumn – Ali Smith

Ali Smith has the most remarkable ability to write in an easy, readable style – a style that is full of joy when dealing with the most difficult issues, like death and prejudice, and even Brexit. 
Autumn covers all of this in Smith’s subtle and often surprising way, her story centring in two people – the nearly 100 year old Daniel and the thirty-something Elisabeth. 
Through long flashbacks that constitute half of the book, we get the story of how they were neighbours when Elisabeth was in her early teens, and the two became good friends, spending long chunks of time together talking about ideas and books and imagination and art. Daniel gives her an education whilst also being her friend. 
Elisabeth loves him, platonically, and the contemporary part of the book sees her visiting him in his old people’s home, often as he sleeps in his chair, something her Mum finds slightly inexplicable and the carers can only think of as a familial relationship.
And it’s their relationship which is most interesting in this book. It breaks the boundaries of what we think a relationship between an old man and a young girl can be in our (often understandably) cynical times, hinting that connection and love across great divides of era and age are possible.
The other bit of the story is Elisabeth’s research into a forgotten female Brit Pop artist, Pauline Boty. She investigated the artist at university, after being put onto her by Daniel, finding a woman that transgressed boundaries and borders like Daniel and Elisabeth do.
Like many of Smith’s books, it’s the characters and the style that pull you along, not the plot, and it’s only at the end, after a little reflection, that it all hangs together, making an impression in a way many novels don’t.