The book’s closing vision is of a world in which ruination of various kinds, including that caused by climate crisis, is interpreted as being potentially appalling, but also a possible means of salvation, because it restores the stewardship of the planet to Earth’s own non-human agency. There are places in the preceding pages where the structure of Ness creaks a little as it submits the wild forces it values to a firm (albeit fanciful) narrative pattern, and there are times when the governing idea of the Armourer et al and the “poetic” prose can seem somewhat twee. But the conclusion of the book is, in its bleak way, impressive, and constitutes another reason to be grateful that we have someone as inventive as well as erudite as Macfarlane continuing to address the most important subject of our time.
In Ness, Macfarlane’s words are a peculiar blend of past and future, inflected with the language of technology and warfare as well as the epic quality of Old English. Donwood’s images, meanwhile, are very much rooted in the damp, blank present of Orford Ness today. The result is atmospheric and thought-provoking — if slightly discordant.
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.