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Orford Ness isn’t quite anywhere. A spit of land off the Suffolk coast, it’s a 12 mile long nature reserve these days but for decades it was home to a Ministry of Defence facility. Russia was spied on there, weapons tested rhere and the shells of the buildings have been left to fall back under nature’s control as part of a gloriously named process called Controlled Ruination. A 12 mile strip of land off the Suffolk coast. One part nature, one part industry. One part ghost fortress, one part verdant new oasis. It’s a fascinating place, and one that Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood capture the spirit of in this profoundly beautiful, profoundly odd book.
In the heart of the Ness, a group of almost-humans gather to detonate a final atrocity, As they begin their devotions, forces rally against them. Forces of the Ness, forces shaped by the Ness. ideas cloaked in pronouns, concepts with birds nests for ribs. The fundamental forces of language embodied in the fundamental structures of nature and rising, as they do that, in opposition to the blunt force atomic trauma that something which thinks it’s humanity intends to perpetrate.
That confrontation would sit at the end of a three book fantasy cycle quite comfortably. Here though, it takes just under a hundred pages to be resolved. But Macfarlane’s careful, water polished and wind stacked, language and Underwood’s beautiful line work gives you every pound of weight and mass the story demands and deserves. Concepts clothe themselves in life of every size, their abstract presence itself an indicator of their passage through the story. Pronouns armor themselves with bracken and moss, lichen and bird cries. Linguistic combinations you’d never expect sparkle and shine like shingle after rain. ‘Speaks only in birds’ ;’has hagstones’ for eyes (Underwood’s hagstone drawings puncutuate the book). Perhaps my favorite is this:
It’s all this beautiful, this alien, this natural. It leaves you with a profound sense of familiarity and a feeling of walking through an entirely unfamiliar landscape. No wonder Macfarlane has struggled to find a way to articulate his feelings for this place, trying first a libretto and second this object shaped like a book. That’s not a disservice either, but what this is really does change from page to page. Sometimes even faster. It’s not quite a poem, not quite a novelette or novella. It wears the clothes of science fiction and the post-apocalypse but moves like a fable. It’s mercurial, unsettled, relentless writing quite unlike anything else I’ve read this year. You should read it too.