The Dabbler Book Club Review: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

It’s received terrific reviews. But what did Dabblers think of our latest selection? First, we hear from Dabbler Book Club Member and Scotland’s first soupmonger, Elaine Mason, then from Dabbler Editor, Gaw.

Elaine Mason: Some books you pick up as a distraction. Others are relaxing; an unwinding at the end of a long day. I find Kathleen Jamie’s two books of natural history essays* to have an atmosphere all of their own. I savour picking up her books, and relish her distinctive voice unspooling around me.

Her books are quiet. The essays meditate on a multitude of topics in a myriad of surroundings but at the centre of her writing is the skill of the watcher. She likes to look, to mull, to consider, and to look again. Whether her mindful gaze falls on bacteria seen through a microscope, a Bronze Age skeleton carefully unearthed in a thunderstorm, or considers the weirdly lit Whale Hall in Bergen Natural History Museum, her voice demands that you – the reader – slow down and listen. Listen to her. Give her time, and space, to think about the topic under consideration. Let her widen her scope, let her pan back and let the wider landscape be brought into focus. Let her teach you to look:

That’s what the keen-eyed naturalists say. Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.

(Sightlines, p82)

Kathleen Jamie is the perfect essayist. The essays and meditations in Sightings are, I’ve found, the perfect companion on a journey. By the time I reach journey’s end I am ready to look afresh at the world, consider properly what’s in front of me and give it time to tell it’s story.

This is a book of wonders. Pick it up, slow yourself down and learn to look.

* Her other collection of essays is Findings (Ed.)

Gaw: Not the least enjoyment of this collection of essays in nature writing is the style. It’s something that’s been universally praised by reviewers. However, style is something of a will o’ the wisp. Happily there’s a description of the skeleton of a sei whale that sits at the heart of Sightlines that serves as metaphor: it’s “elegant…gracile…slim…feminine”, and yet it briskly supports a brute, even disturbing, power.

Perhaps, sublime is also an apposite word to apply. Certainly a thread of exhilarating terror runs through the book. We partake in the unfathomable – whales, cancerous tumours, the life of abandoned islands, the moon, neolithic tombs, cave paintings, wild coasts, icebergs – exploring the edges of our civilisation and beyond. But we’re never allowed to forget that these edges are at the centre of other worlds, that really we’re all of a piece, with no clear endings in time or place.

This is the main theme of the book. Nature, despite its often staggering sublimity, isn’t something apart from us; it is us and we are it. Inescapably so, death being a final and unarguable reminder.

Outside of a few sentences, Jamie makes her point mostly through relating her encounters, by showing not telling. It’s powerfully done – the essential nature of things is manifested a few times with the force of epiphany.

Her responses are sympathetic without ever being sentimental; the awe-inspiring is never entirely alien. In particular, there’s an unaffected, unforced feeling of being at ease with animals, a fellow-feeling.

Here’s a description of how she felt whilst trying to keep up with a group of killer whales as they patrolled around a remote Scottish headland:

Acid burn at the sternum, taste of blood, tussocky earth and sky flashing, and my heart pounding; suddenly I was reminded mine was an animal body, all muscle and nerve – and so were they, the killer whales, surging animal bodies, in their black and whites, outclassing us utterly.

“[T]aste of blood”: I’d previously had a physical awareness of this sensation – produced by acute exertion and adrenalin – but not a conscious one. In this remarkable book Jamie manages to raise from all sorts of deep places things that should be strange but are revealed to us as profoundly familiar.

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The Dabbler is the culture blog for connoisseurs of everything.

One thought on “The Dabbler Book Club Review: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

    May 16, 2012 at 22:07

    Shame I missed this one as it has certainly garnered good reviews everywhere

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