In Thicker Than Water (2016) Flyn followed to Australia an ancestor who led his fellow Scots not only into frontier country but in massacres of Aboriginal people. It was a moving and impressive debut, but her second book is more accomplished. In her acknowledgements, Flyn writes of the “nerve-wracking prospect” of taking on “a very technical, or contentious, subject with the intention of carving out a clear narrative for a mainstream audience”. She needn’t have worried: Islands of Abandonment is both clear and compelling.
Islands of Abandonment is fascinating and brain-energising. It is full of detail and colour that sends one googling, to look up pictures and find out more. It is also an optimistic book — in these “bent and broken, despoiled and desolate, polluted and poisoned” places she found “new life springing from the wreckage”. While Flyn is at pains to say that we mustn’t stop the fight against man-made climate change or the pillaging of the wild, she also suggests that they show that nature, with time, can rebound.
There is some thrilling writing here, a fine way with the telling detail, and a plea for radical revisioning of what we mean by “nature” and “wild”. One wonders if there is a Pollyanna-ism at work, a willed optimism that might provide licence for future destruction because, we might say, sometime in the deep future, life will prevail. Flyn is alert to this, acknowledges that she is focusing on the silver linings – and acknowledges, too, the heavy losses that will result from global warming. The pockets of enticing abandonment we create with a mine here or a quarry there will be as nought to the Earth-changing, human-induced climate change. When it comes to planetary impact, “We are the meteor, we are the volcano.” And what will survive of that?
Just when you thought there was nowhere left to explore, along comes an author with a new category of terrain — not scenes where man has never trod, but places where he has been and gone. There is a special quality of loneliness in these fresh ruins. As well as an explorer, Flyn, who writes for Granta and the Guardian, is a psycho-geographer, attuned to the spirit of hopeless places — an ecologist, too, her theme being that these desolate spots are not, in fact, as hopeless as they seem. As she travels from California to Tanzania to Ukraine and home again, her message is that, however much of a mess we’ve made, nature stages a comeback.