Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

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Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A beautiful enquiry into what culture is, how important or otherwise memories are. Momentary vignettes link lengthier tales contrasting different ways in which people are linked to the past, and the different extent to which they care.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: September 2019
Publisher: Sort of Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1908745811

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Sometimes when people suggest that you read a certain book, they tell you this one has your name on it. Mostly we take them at their word, or not, but rarely do we ask them why they thought so unless it turns out that we didn't like the book. That's a rare experience. People who are sensitive to hearing a book calling your name, rarely get it wrong. In this case, I was told why. The blurb speaks of the author considering an older, less tethered sense of herself. Older. Less tethered. That's not a bad description of where I am. Add to that my love of the natural world, of those aspects of the poetic and lyrical that are about style not form, and substance most of all, about connection. Of course, this book had my name on it. It was written for me. It would have found its way to me eventually. I am pleased to have it fall onto my path so quickly.

In this collection of essays, Jamie leads us in gently. We begin with a four-page reverie on being in a Reindeer Cave, in the Western Highlands of Scotland. It's an ancient place and Jamie has a fabulously economic way of linking the past with the present. She talks of the now as the early Anthropocene. Even though I had to look up its precise meaning, which isn't yet fixed because the term itself hasn't been formally generally accepted, I knew etymologically that it had something to do with the age of man. The era in which man (as in human, we're not genderising here) has been a significant determinant of change on the planet. We'll live to discover whether this is the 'early' Anthropocene; we may find it's a short-lived era and we're already into the late… but I digress. Jamie keeps us in the cave. More specifically she keeps 'you' in the cave, for this first short piece is written in the second and third person. You are the one sitting there looking at what is now to be seen. Third-person is reserved for what was. A long time ago. Back in the ice age, back when bears roamed here. Her tone is largely what you'd expect from a poet, but she knows when to break it, bring it back to reality. The hoard of antlers […are] not what you'd imagine. They're not majestic. Ancient fragments, they look more like broken biscuits.

This sets the scene in a way for everything which follows. There is so much beautiful writing and description, but always the author checks herself, pulls it back, says (in effect) but here in the real world, it's like this.

There are twelve tales in all, ranging from 4 pages to 88, an even mix of the long and the short. I suspect it will be the subject matter more than the style which determines which are your favourites. Although she names the collection after a close-to-home memoir of mining community life, it is the far-away tale of Quinhagak that captured my heart – and the echoes of it, and lack of echoes of it in Notland.

In the far north of Alaska, Yup'ik people are reclaiming their stories. There are mixed responses in the community, but on the whole, they know that if this work is not done something of themselves will be lost. The Quinhagak descriptions are of the kind that will either speak to your soul and have you (a) wanting to be on the next plane there and (b) knowing you shouldn't unless you can come up with a contributory reason for doing so. This isn't a quaint community. It's a hardscrabble one, but one that definitely has a soul. It’s a place where artefacts are surfacing because of climate change and through the artefacts interest is being piqued so that the old language is also resurfacing and the stories that go with it, and with them some aspects of the way of life. Being a shaman is again something to be proud of, not ashamed. The fishing and the hunting are what you do because up at these latitudes that's what the planet encourages you, allows you, to do. No-one is pretending it’s an age-old untouched subsistence culture: they wear tracksuits and hoodies and drive four-wheelers, but it is a culture that was nearly lost and that, with the work continuing can find a new place in the new world.

Meanwhile, in Scotland the opposite story is playing out. Notland provides the Scots (the UK, while we're still one nation) a second chance at Skara Brae. For those who don’t know, Skara Brae is a stone-built Neolithic settlement, on Mainland, largest of the Orkneys. It is Europe's most complete Neolithic village, but it was excavated before the science of archaeology had really been developed. No-one knows how much was lost in the uncovering of Skara Brae. Links of Notland, Jamie's contacts tell us, provide an opportunity to do it over, differently, to see how these sites developed through time, to record and analyse and theorise and reclaim more of the cultures that have seemingly been lost. Or maybe not. At the time Jamie visited the site, funding was running out, the powers that be had no motivation to keep it going, and the local people really had no interest in what was coming out of the ground. They did not see themselves as ancient British or Celts…they saw themselves as Vikings. Whether that's an attachment to the warrior myth or genealogical accuracy is beyond the author's scope; what matters is that unlike up in Alaska, in Scotland there is no interest at what is being lost and found.

The contrast is stark.

The final long piece is an excavation of her own history, delving through old journals she retells a traveller's tale of time spent in Xiahe a Tibetan town already annexed by China. She is vague on dates telling us only that she was half as old as now and leaving us to work out from the political situation precisely when. So little has changed in that part of the world, in so many years, you could place in it any of two or three decades and not be far wrong. It is a personal story of roads not taken, questions not asked, but also a reflection on how we relate to cultures other than our own, whether we're separated from them by distance or time seems to have the same impact.

The shorter pieces are fragments of memory. Remembered conversations. Family stories unearthed. Or just a moment in time, a view through a window.

The power and beauty of Jamie's prose is one reason to read this collection and may be the one to draw you in. But you will be drawn in, and then you will come back because there is information in here too that you will want to unearth again, and there is wisdom.

For more about Alaska, the Bookbag recommends The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic by Sara Wheeler, for memoirs related to remote places there is the wonderful The Cave of the Yellow Dog by Byambasuren Davaa. You might also enjoy A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt and Simon Garfield.

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