Bookshelf · 04/07/2016

The man who spoke snakish at hawthorn time

Our bookshelf is a space where the editors (and, perhaps, guests) can share what we’re reading and thinking about without the formality of a longer review or the focus on recent books, or even sticking to fiction as we usually do.


Novels that take a complex, contemporary view of the natural world and human presence in it are pretty much my favorite reading (as anyone who spends more than a moment talking books with me discovers). I’ve read a couple of good ones lately, novels that left me plenty to think about, so I thought I’d inaugurate our new “Bookshelf” area of the site by sharing them with NF’s readers.

Grove Atlantic, 2015
The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk, translated from Estonian by Christopher Moseley, recounts the life of Leemet — the titular speaker or snakish — from childhood to old age. He lives in the Estonian forest during a medieval age of “iron men” and their bishops arriving by ship and by horse, and his own culture of traditional forest-dwellers has dwindled as more and more friends and neighbors move to a village at the edge of the wild. It’s a bloody book, and a funny book, and a heartbreaking book full of wild animals and mythology and magic (several of my favorite things), but what I really enjoyed is its absence of the simple nostalgia fiction about “modernity vs. tradition” too often slips into. Adherents to an extremist incarnation of the forest-dwellers’ traditions prove as dangerous as the outsiders, and the reader is frequently reminded that choices and changes are rarely as simple as right vs. wrong. (Though I do need to gripe that publisher Grove Atlantic doesn’t #namethetranslator on the book’s cover, which always gets my dander up.)

Bloomsbury, 2015
Where Kivirähk’s novel is wild and rambling in style and voice (I mean those as high compliments), Melissa Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time is equally exciting in its control and reflective efficiency. Like her debut Clay (which she wrote about in our research notes series, and which I’ve reviewed elsewhere), this second novel follows multiple characters as their lives overlap — this time in an English village over the course of a few weeks. The qualities I admired so much in Clay are here, too, from the engrossing attention to small, seasonal markers of time to a deep knowledge of landscape and its many layers. But what I liked best about it — and it has this in common with The Man Who Spoke Snakish, which is why I’ve brought them together — is an insistence on seeing the world as it is rather than idealizing, romanticizing, or villainizing the wild in ways that are too common in literature and culture-at-large. Such honesty is there in the presence of a massive distribution center in the rural landscape, and in a painter character realizing she needs to paint not just noble trees but the pylons, fences, and blown about trash she sees alongside them. And it’s there, too, in Kivirähk’s depiction of extremist adherents to tradition causing as many problems for the forest and its inhabitants as the changes they radicalize in response to. Either of these novels — ideally both! — are an excellent antidote to more clichéd fiction about the natural world and I hope you’ll give them a look.


Steve Himmer is the editor of Necessary Fiction.