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Sightlines, By Kathleen Jamie
Our world as you've never seen it before
Sunday 29 April 2012
In "Pathologies", the second of the wonderful, sublime essays in this collection, a professor at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee describes the work of a maverick Nobel Prize-winning pathologist, while he and Kathleen Jamie look at bacteria through a microscope.
"The thing is, you perceive what you expect, what you're accustomed to," he says. "Sometimes it needs a fresh eye, or a looser mind ...." He could be describing Jamie herself, because this astonishing collection of writing is all about fresh ways of seeing and thinking, and it's a wondrous thing to encounter.
Jamie was best known as a poet until her 2005 book Findings, a debut collection of essays that was uncategorisable – part nature writing, part travel, part autobiography, part philosophy of life. It was a book that took the quotidian and somehow painted it anew, finding wonder among the humdrum stuff of life.
If anything, Sightlines is even better. The style is the same – Jamie's prose is a joy of clarity and precision, never showy or cluttered, and always with just the right turn of phrase – but the scope of her subject matter and the span of her adventures, both physical and mental, are greater.
The acuteness of her observations means that she is able to bring places and ideas to life with ease. So we get a vivid trip up an iceberg-strewn fjord off Greenland to witness the Northern Lights, and then we get the chaotic fuss of visiting a gannetry off the coast of Scotland. Elsewhere, Jamie's accounts of visits to the Hebridean islands of St Kilda and Rona are master- pieces of understated nature writing – especially the encounter with killer whales in the latter.
But Jamie does so much more than just visit. She is a deep thinker on the human condition and nature, and especially the relationship between the two. There is a refreshing lack of romanticism here; a realistic down-to-earthness that grounds her prose and makes it all the more accessible. Whether it's a visit to a whale museum or a prehistoric cave in Spain or a heartbreaking encounter with a moth, you'll find yourself constantly re-examining and reassessing your views concerning our place on this earth.
While reading this incredible book, I lost count of the number of times I stopped during a passage to think to myself: "Yes, that's exactly right! I hadn't thought of it like that before!" Surely there can be no higher praise for a piece of writing.
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