Well, what is it? Prose poem? Artwork (it is beautifully illustrated by Stanley Donwood)? Multi-media meditation? Having read all of his work, what was most surprising about this is how surprising it was. It bears little relationship to Mountains Of The Mind, The Wild Places,The Old Ways or Underland, although it does have a connection with Untrue Island, his musical collaboration with double-bassist Arnie Somogyi, which is also about the setting of this work: Orford Ness. Orford Ness is a genuine paradox. On one hand it is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest and on the other it contains the ruins of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. But in Macfarlane’s book it becomes something else as well. It is the Green Chapel, which carries associations with the poem Gawain And The Green Knight.
Like Max Porter and Jon McGregor, Macfarlane is part of a generation of writers who invoke English landscape and folklore in thick, incantatory prose... Ness is a book to read aloud to appreciate its fine phrases... Macfarlane skirts a fine line between awestruck and overawed by nature; and his hypersensitivity to language can feel precious... The main problem with Ness is how sketchy and incomplete it feels, like one of those well-meaning collaborative commissions by the Arts Council. Perhaps a third incarnation awaits, with a suitably crashing score. I was intrigued by the second, but never swept up.