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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sarah Moss

Emergency by Daisy Hildyard review – a dark pastoral

A kestrel sparks childhood memories in Emergency. Photograph: TomsPhotos/Alamy

Daisy Hildyard’s first novel, Hunters in the Snow, was lyrical and haunting and brought well-deserved critical success. She followed it with a book of essays on climate change and human relations with plants and animals, The Second Body. In Emergency, Hildyard develops the strengths of her first novel and the concerns of her nonfiction. There isn’t exactly a plot but there are spiralling, intricate meditations on plants, animals, humans and ecosystems, gracefully told through an approximate coming-of-age story set in a village in a nondescript part of northern England.

Emergency begins with the narrator “old enough to be outside and alone”, sitting above a quarry, watching a kestrel and a vole who have not yet seen each other: “We all waited to find out who would move first.” This incident leads to the memory of playing with the children next door; then to a pet rabbit that ate its young (“Even today, she seems to me very human in the way her principles forced her to self-destruct”). We move on to an uneasy relationship with an eccentric elderly neighbour; then back to that moment in the quarry, which produces “gravel that was sent all over the world, the requirements of Norwegian motorways and new cities in China determined the shape of the quarry and the size of the shape it left”. The narrative touches on a neighbour’s work in the local abattoir; watching foxes in the garden at night; the arrival of the first computer in the village primary school, where one of the teachers usually carries bruises and fractures from her husband’s assaults.

We explore the unnamed narrator’s world, which does not extend beyond her own village but also, of course, sits within global networks like everywhere else. The tabs from her cans of Fanta are found later in the stomachs of dead birds; at school the children learn about the Chernobyl rains; the animals she knows are milked, slaughtered and sent away. Family life is stable enough, although both parents work in precarious jobs and money is tight. Some of the village’s free-range children torture animals, corporal punishment is informally tolerated at school and there is ample opportunity to learn about pain and violence within and between species of all sorts. The villagers casually accept racism and snobbery all the time. If this is a pastoral novel, it follows Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and Max Porter’s Lanny in its convincing insistence on the gothic darkness of modern country life as well as the beauty of the English countryside.

Sometimes, a present-day voice cuts across the recollections. We discover suddenly that the narrator speaks from her London flat during the first lockdown. As a child, her half-sister Serena brings her a book of pictures of cave paintings, one of few moments when someone enters the story from beyond the village: “Serena explained that most of the mammals in the pictures had been hunted out of existence.” The next paragraph begins: “That book is one of the few things I still own from that time … It’s April and I’m not allowed to leave the house more than once a day … the authorities say that the world is fatally interconnected and inside, alone with my thoughts, is the safest place to be.” And then, “in the morning”, we’re back with Serena, catching the school bus.

There are more swoops across time, sudden interjections from a present-day adult speaker, one who remembers lapwings repeatedly rebuilding nests in the wheel-marks left by tractors and reflects that “I know what it’s like to keep on waiting for a baby that will never arrive”. This speaker’s smoke alarm beeps for weeks, until she stops hearing it; her recollection of a childhood neighbour’s vegetable garden is interrupted by the observation: “People say that growing plants is a calming thing to do but in my experience it is more often enraging.”

For all its slowness and delicacy, this novel is a high-wire act, chancing the reader’s suspension of disbelief and commitment to a story that is manifestly moving only towards the familiar mess of the present day. As emergencies go, it’s gradual and plotless and thus almost more realistic than the form of the novel can bear. This book succeeds because of the chilly and beautifully sustained voice of its narrator, the precise embroidery of its sentences and paragraphs, its observations of the natural world and insistence that there is no distinction between humans and environments.

• Sarah Moss’s most recent novel is The Fell (Picador). Emergency by Daisy Hildyard is published by Fitzcarraldo (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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