by Kathleen Jamie
The ability to see detail and then render it precisely with words is a wonderful gift, exercised by Kathleen Jamie in a series of essays about the natural world. In one chapter, she visits a Norwegian museum that proudly displays whale skeletons killed during the golden days of whaling, suspending them in the air from great chains as if the bones are still swimming. In another, she writes simply about the nature of light on the day that it bursts forth proclaiming the transition from winter to spring. With delicacy and grace, she explores the curiosities of her Scottish homeland and invites the reader to join her.
I can’t decide if the wide range of topics is a strength or a weakness of this book. On the one hand, the variety of topics is great. Every reader will encounter something new. But on the other hand, the book has a certain lack of focus. I love archaeology, so “The Woman in the Field”, which describes an excavation that the author participated in during her youth, was interesting and I learned a lot about how to describe the dull work of digging in poetic, engaging terms. But the preceding essay, “Pathologies”, when the author tries to come to term with her mother’s death by exploring tumors and diseases, managed to bore me so much that I nearly put the book down and walked away. Her essays on St. Kilda, an abandoned village on a tiny island in Scotland, couldn’t quite get inside me to impel me to keep reading.
And yet…Jamie can describe the colors of the aurora borealis and the biting cold of the frozen north in such a raw, visual way that I truly feel that I see what she sees. The craftsmanship of her sentences is exquisite, and this is all the more noticeable when the essays are read out loud. I want to like it the way I love the nature writing of John Muir, but there’s something missing. All those words, words, and words paint a picture but never quite imbue the book with a soul.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin
2012: The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit by Adolf Holl
2011: Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran
2010: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith
2009: When the Soul Mends by Cindy Woodsmall