“The essays here are smart and funny and stunningly beautiful and evocative…” – The Abundance by Annie Dillard

adtaI’m shamefully late with this review; I’ve had Dillard’s essay collection hanging around the house since March and I’ve only finished it in the last few days. But I’m not that slow a reader; I had a house-move-and-renovation and a PhD submission in April, and in May I had a new baby. Excuses, right? I did read other books in the meantime (what else would have gotten me through the house-move, what else does one do, post-PhD?), but it wasn’t that Dillard didn’t hold my attention – quite the opposite, in fact. For months I dipped in and out of this book and made notes and reread various of the essays and thought about the prose and the ideas, and generally put off the end-point because I just didn’t want to finish it. If you’ve been through childbirth you’ll know what I mean when I say there’s a hallucinatory daze that follows on from late pregnancy through to the main event – your angle on everything shifts, the pace of life abruptly alters, time gets all skewed. And if ever I’ve picked up a book that reflects this change – that reflects and refracts this kind of realignment of experience, of attention-paying (while not actually being about that experience), then it’s this one.

So, I liked it very much. Dillard’s a non-fiction writer, a memoirist and a nature writer, though to pin any label on her seems ridiculously reductive; if she’s anything, she’s a wry and wondrous stylist with a thirst for knowledge that she tirelessly transmits to the reader. The Abundance is a ‘curated’ collection – a ‘best of’ that brings together works from across the long span of her career to date, from pieces detailing childhood games to her reaction to the 1991 tsunami that hit Bangladesh, from polar exploration to a study of the genesis of sand. When I read H Is For Hawk last year for a graduate seminar course I was resistant (‘But I don’t like nature writing’), and (because god forbid I learn my lesson) I was only moderately less hesitant this time, curious mainly because of Dillard’s Pulitzer (okay, I’m a terrible snob, yeah). Well, man, do I now regret the lack of Dillard in my life to date.

The essays here are smart and funny and stunningly beautiful and evocative, from her description of the ‘wrecked light’ of a solar eclipse:

‘The white ring and the saturated darkness made the earth and sky look as they must look in the memories of the careless dead. […] We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared for nothing.’

Similarly, in ‘Newborn and Salted’, she tells us:

‘The day is real; the sky clicks securely in place over the mountains, locks around the islands, snaps slap on the bay.’

The visual is made new on every page; each observation is startling and familiar and essential; Dillard’s world is ours, but she’s made it utterly her own. She brings a glory to the everyday – the sun bursting through the leaves of a tree – and to the grotesque – a bug sucking the life and innards from a startled frog. It’s the sublime and the godly but without the religiosity. And she avoids morals – these aren’t essays to educate or to guide or to editorialize about her own experience; they’re expressions of her own awe and curiosity, and they’re gorgeously composed.

Now, in case you’re unfamiliar with my tastes, and you think I might be promoting a type of flowery, overblown or New-Agey prose, fear not: these pieces are absolutely to the point, pin-sharp descriptive prose at its finest with a droll edge hovering to make you grin when you’re not expecting it. Here’s Dillard on the fraught, violent horror of adolescence:

‘I was shooting out sparks that were digging a pit all around me, and I was sinking into that pit’

(from ‘Waking Up Wild’).

And here she is on the role of the writer:

‘The writer knows his field […] the way a tennis player knows the court. And he, too, plays the edges. That’s where the exhilaration is: He hits up the line. He pushes the edges. Beyond this limit, here, the reader must recoil. Reason balks, poetry snaps, some madness enters, or strain. Now courageously and carefully, can he enlarge it? Can he nudge the bounds? And enclose what wild power?’

If this is what she’s been trying out, she’s definitely succeeded in pushing those edges. If you’re into geology and biology and botany and more, you’ll love it, but if you’re not, you’ll love it for the way she exhorts you to notice your world. And if you’re a writer, you’d do well to put her instructions into practice: hit the line, observe the air, make note of all you see.

Any Cop?: ‘Wild power’ and ‘exhilaration’ just about encapsulate it. A superb read, a masterful writer, a total must-read – whether you think you like nature writing or not.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 

 


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