Low-key and understated, this beautiful book, from the excellent small publisher Fitzcarraldo, is a civilised and melancholy document that slowly progresses towards a sense of enduring, going onwards, and even new life. It feels like a healing experience.
Sebald is undoubtedly an influence on the technique and structure of Ash Before Oak with its mixture of deep, despondent reflection and unexpected historic details. Along the way, for example, we get an account of Tim Warr, a former housemaster at Harrow who played rugby for England and “re-visited time after time during the week of his death the try he had scored for England at Cardiff Arms Park, toppling out of bed onto the floor as he dived in his mind across the line”. Such digressions appear completely spontaneous within the logic and flow of the diary entries. But almost all of them are primarily concerned with sensitive considerations of nature... [W]ho is this man? Jeremy Cooper? Perhaps much of what is contained in this diary-as-novel happened to him. It doesn’t matter. We read it for its own worth and that worth is not contained in a name.
Instead of a clear story, what Cooper offers, very boldly and successfully, is a broad narrative arc of collapse and tentative recovery, in which a struggle for meaning and purpose in life assumes a desperate intensity. The radical lopsidedness created by the narrator’s omissions makes these solipsistic fragments (and at times these lonely pages do cry out for a bit more human company) life-affirming, as well as fiercely harrowing, in a very unusual way. Because of the narrator’s inability to describe his anguish, what’s mostly written here is not his pain, but his clinging to life: the beauty caught and traced, with great skill, in trying to overcome suffering.