The surfacing that gives the collection its title is a constellation of several meanings. This is a book full of archaeology: the revelation of the deep past in the present moment, the peeling back of layers of history to reveal the stories written into landscapes. It’s also the way that memories surface, suddenly and seemingly randomly, until more profound reflection reveals echoes and affinities between seemingly unrelated points in time. It’s this deeper logic that connects the 12 essays in the collection, so that meaning is passed like a baton from one to the next, with each essay planting the seed of the one that follows. It makes for a book whose impact is accretive and, eventually, astonishing.
The beauty of Jamie’s writing is in this stillness, its quietness and its clarity. Interleaved with her grainy black-and-white photographs, the essays in Surfacing are like a lovingly preserved collection of mementos, vestiges of distant times and places that resonate today. These are stories that linger – in Kathleen Jamie’s own words: “you can’t recall the sound of the telling. Something remains, however: the cadence”.
Jamie also looks at time’s spiral on a more personal scale, exploring recently resurfaced layers of her own life, always with an eye to a surprising resonance, an unexpected detail. She recalls her grandmother, who suffered from severe depression, being given ECT ‘to shock her to the surface of her own mind’. Elsewhere, she transforms the mould on portions of food, left uneaten by her elderly father, to ‘a tundra landscape, as seen from the air. Blooms of bottle green, circlets of paler green, of fawn’.
The title of Surfacing refers not only to the unearthing of artefacts in digs but to a multiplicity of personal renewals: miners re-emerging from the pit, her grandmother recovering from depression, her own experience of cancer. Surfacing is also a stage of life, the rediscovery of the self in late middle-age, when parents are dead and children grown. The importance of renewal and reclamation is to the forefront, along with an anxiety about the future – on a systemic as well as an individual level. There is a strong belief in the value of continuity, constancy, craft and independence.
There is unity here. This is not just a collection of pieces thrown together in sufficient number to make a book. Even the one essay that does not immediately seem to have a connection to the others – a marvellous picture of a journey to the edge of Tibet at the time of the Tiananmen Square repression in Beijing – does in fact belong... One day, 5,000 years ago, before the Neolithic village was abandoned, someone crept back to leave “a small stone box tucked within a hearth, before the houses were buried completely. Of course, we open the box, hoping for a token, a keepsake, even a message of some kind, but there is nothing inside.” What will be made of what we leave, if there is anyone to receive it? This is a beautiful book, and a wise one. It invites feeling and thought.
Jamie’s writing has a deceptive simplicity: its powers are cumulative. Her way is to build impressionistic detail by recounting conversations, travels, observations of the natural world, and then carefully layer it in. It is its own kind of archaeology. Every now and then, however, she cuts through the assemblage of beautiful prose with a stinging comment: a reminder that the natural balance is out of whack, or that violence and menace can surface just as easily as venerable artefacts from the past.
The first of two splendid offerings from Sort of Books this month is a collection of enchanting writing by award-winning poet and essayist Jamie, characterised by explorations of objects and fragments which surface and reconnect us to our past, from the bones of a bear in a reindeer cave in the west of Scotland, to Jamie's own memories of her grandparents and youthful travels. There is also an extended, mesmerising account of a summer she spent in a Yupik village in Alaska, where objects spilling from the thawing tundra link its present-day people to their hunter-gatherer past.