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The summary of this book doesn't come close to explaining what is done with the premise.

Emergency by Daisy Hildyard

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: Contemplative and philosophical and evoking the pastoral genre, Emergency paints a transfixing vision of the natural world.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 224 Date: April 2022
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
ISBN: 978-1913097813

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The novel is set in the midst of lockdown in a confined city flat, while the narrator - herself somewhat diminished by her confinement - reflects on memories of her childhood in Yorkshire. Long stretches of the narrative are given over to segments of the younger narrator exploring her home village and its surrounding environs: observing the comings and goings of the people of the village and of the abundant nature surrounding it.

It is this, more than anything, which is the novel's preoccupation: the workings of the natural world and the relationships between the things in it. Hildyard's preoccupation is the way in which all these things, if not every thing, are connected: as she attentively describes each flower, plant, and animal she finds, she also lays out in great detail the precise ways in which each relate to the others. But she is also sharply observant of the boundaries between nature and human expansion, and the central thrust of the flashback narrative is her witnessing the extent to which a formerly teeming area is steadily but surely eroded by human development.

The writing style is strange, being almost a studied list of observations rather than a story. It can sometimes feel almost maddeningly slow, since Hildyard examines every facet of her surrounding in fastidious, laboriously minute detail, right down to the contents and materials of food containers. It's slow but enjoyably philosophical; slightly dreamlike in its languidity. I'm told it's reminiscent of the author's previous work, a collection of essays on similar themes. That's fitting, as the narrative feels almost like fictional non-fiction.

This is actually the first "pandemic narrative" I've read (or, at least, the first which directly references it) and while this isn't as bruising to read as I might have expected, some of the impressions feel under-developed, as if perhaps they should have sat for longer. Perhaps the wounds of that time are still too raw to be revisited this soon. The sections set in the present day felt jarring with what the rest of the novel was trying to achieve; they didn't read nearly as well and the overall impression was of two narratives awkwardly stitched together. Many of the links drawn between the behaviour of the people described and the behaviour of the animals the narrator observes felt rather forced and not as meaningful as was perhaps intended. Similarly, Hildyard's observations on privilege and prejudice are sharply observed but perhaps not quite as revealing as she thinks they are.

But this is not to overly disparage Emergency. It's a very unique, intelligent concept and an ambitious exercise in fiction writing; I've never read a novel quite like it. I found it fascinating and, for all that it occasionally confused or disorientated me, utterly compelling.


The evocation of the pastoral genre leads me to recommend Small Memories by Jose Saramago for further reading.


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