Paperback reviews: Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, Nijinsky, Jane of Lantern Hill, Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon, The Crooked Seed


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The Independent Culture

Feral:  Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, By George Monbiot (Penguin £8.99)

Whether you agree with Monbiot’s position on the environment or not, you can hardly fail to be impressed – and moved – by the wonderfully specific way he writes of his own personal experiences of it. His is a world of orange nematocysts, jellyfish “like burst figs”, gannets, river mouths, creeks, mudflats, ochre and viridian lands. One of the things you really notice about the “new wave” of nature writing, evinced also by writers like Robert Macfarlane, is how the words sound. This is prose style as auditory experience; what majesty the eye notes in the landscape is echoed in the vocabulary.

Is there a “wildness” in this kind of writing, too? Monbiot’s personal experience is impressive – this is a man who likes action, who works with tribesmen, goes down rapids, chases over moors. He uses it to explain his views: he knows not everyone likes the idea of wolves released into the wild, and sets up his stall, explaining that they’re more afraid of us than we are of them, how they will re-inscribe the landscape. If we expect other countries to preserve dangerous animals in the wild, shouldn’t we at least be prepared to do the same?

All that rational argument is good and well, but it’s the “wildness” that really appeals to him, and this is where logic departs, or at least the Enlightenment part of it. Because this is an appeal to the savage in all of us: Monbiot wants wolves reintroduced because “wolves are fascinating ... because they feel to me like the shadow that flits between systole and diastole, because they are the necessary monsters of the mind”. This is nature writing prepared to go off at a tangent when it needs to, prepared to explore the byways of our passions. Yes, there is a wildness here and it’s a welcome one.

Nijinsky, By Lucy Moore (Profile £10.99)

Was Nijinsky a genius whose art pushed him over the edge? Moore doesn’t speculate in this excellent biography but she suggests a more complex reason, as she traces the dancer’s extraordinary breakdown in the wake of his marriage and the birth of his daughter. In her wistful comment at the end that “it is true that no one can judge a work of art they have not seen. But that does not stop me wishing I had had the chance”, she points to that genius unseen by future generations, after Nijinsky had succumbed to madness. Recognised at an early age for his talent, the son of Polish parents wasn’t handsome but was transformed on stage, and when he came to the attention of Diaghilev his fate was sealed. Moore is tactful about Nijinsky’s sexuality – he attempted to rewrite his relationship with the promoter in later years as one of necessity rather than desire – but it seems to have been important. As she says, he transcended gender in his performances; doing so in life was simply too much.

Jane of  Lantern Hill, By L M Montgomery (Virago £6.99)

Some may find this heroine, conjured up in 1937 by the author of the relentlessly cheerful Anne of Green Gables, a little too keen on being good, too. But Jane, who grows up with her controlling grandmother and flighty mother in a dark mansion in Toronto, is given more than enough to challenge her instincts. Grandmother delights in putting Jane down and mother is so downtrodden she can barely stick up for her own friendless child. Then Jane’s father asks her to stay with him on Prince Edward Island and her life is transformed. Her relationship with her father, a writer whose waywardness is the opposite of the old world of her grandmother, is genuinely delightful to watch unfold.

Josephine:  Desire, Ambition, Napoleon, By Kate Williams (Arrow £9.99)

There have been many biographies of Josephine, and it’s hard to see what new angle Williams brings to this nevertheless interesting portrait. Josephine’s manoeuvering is relentless but it had to be. Raised a Creole on Martinique, she came to Paris only to wed a man who tried to divorce her as soon as he could, she was flung in jail in the “Terror” and was, in effect, a high-class courtesan when the young general spotted her. She was never hugely attracted to Napoleon, conducting a lengthy affair, and their relationship is characterised by absences, and power battles, as he sought to control her. Perhaps a little confusing on the issue of Josephine’s “beauty” but not on her allure.

The Crooked Seed, By Anchee Min (Bloomsbury £8.99)

This sequel to Min’s huge bestseller, Red Azalea, about her life growing up during Mao’s regime in China, goes over some of that ground before we get to her exodus to the US and her subsequent tribulations in her new country. As “misery memoir” goes, this is nearer the top of the tree, but it still suffers from a relentless darkness. Nothing goes right, from the moment she arrives in the wrong city, to the flatmate who rapes and attempts to kill her, to the abortion she has (from which she is still bleeding as she goes to work that evening), to the first husband who doesn’t love her, to quarrels with her daughter. The only shining light is the enormous publishing deal that her agent gets for Red Azalea.