Eemergency, the second novel by Daisy Hildyard, is told by a woman living alone during confinement. Stuck between four walls, she recalls her childhood in the 1990s in a village in Yorkshire. The memories and reflections of the protagonist, however, refuse to respect boundaries. Past and present, nature and humanity, life and death intertwine, ebbing and flowing in a stream of prose that takes the reader on an exhilarating and often provocative and violent ride.
Emergency is advertised as “reinventing the pastoral novel for the age of climate change”, and the rural landscape Hildyard describes is not Arcadia. The landscape it describes is indeed that of the Anthropocene. The narrator recalls looking forward to the seasonal spraying of fields as a child because she was forced to stay indoors with her friend Clare, their indoor playtime protecting them from “invisible poisons.” “. But she also admires the beauty of the sprinkling, the “steam ballerina skirts” exhaled by the farmer’s tractor. The chemical threat of pesticides, the possibility that his bloodstream could be infected “by its smallest contaminating component”, only adds to his fear.
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Her indoor life is spent with friends, relatives, and two much older half-sisters walking in and out. Much of her time is also spent outdoors, immersed both in farm activities and in the wilder world of fields and woods, where she observes the relationship between the two.
The local quarry is an area of contradictory interaction between nature and humanity. It’s a focal point for much of the narrator’s wildlife viewing – sand swallows catch insects, hawks hunt bank swallows, a kestrel chases a vole – but also a place of exchange between his village and the global economy, conscious and unconscious, industrial and infinitesimal. Quarried stone is shipped from Yorkshire to Norway and China to build highways and cities, while “single hair and scales of skin from the bodies of workers” flow to the farthest corners of the world.
Emergency is not a hymn to nature, but an acknowledgment of the complicated boundaries between nature and man in rural life amidst a changing and increasingly globalized economy. The quarry, like the farms, has an impact on the landscape and on the animals and plants that live there. The most poignant example is that of a lapwing that lays its eggs daily in deep tire tracks. They hold a straw-lined nest which, like grass, has “run through the many stomachs of a cow.” Every day the eggs are crushed by a tractor driving in and out of the farm.
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This attention to the ambivalent links between opposite states – wild and ranched, life and death, beauty and ugliness – is a hallmark of Hildyard’s writing. The litter the narrator collects gets lodged in “dirty sand and gravel sags” creating “ugly plants”, but “a smooth piece of mottled plastic” is deemed desirable and retained. As an adult, she thinks of how particles from the plastic toys and trinkets she had as a child are “circulating, right now, through the bodies of newly hatched birds.” A red admiral butterfly emerging from its chrysalis is not the calm transformation alluded to in Eric Carle’s classic children’s book, but one of almost repulsive violence: “It writhed back and forth and turned, the movement twisted as sickening as watching someone being tortured.
“If we had a vivid view and feeling of all ordinary human life,” wrote George Eliot in Middle-walk, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we would die of that roar that lies on the other side of the silence.” In a recent interview, Hildyard explains that “in this novel, I was trying to tune into peaceful voices or sounds or perspectives across different human identities, across distances, and also from non-human beings. I wanted to expand the realities available for the story.
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Taking the famous phrase of Middle-walk, Hildyard writes, “I like to think I’d go crazy if I listened to everything, all the time, the heartbeat of the squirrel or the roar of the grass growing, but that’s is most likely a lie… the business of relentlessly prioritizing and suppressing details from the world is the crazy element. Hildyard’s sharp prose and itinerant vision inspire a broader, healthier attention to the world around us, to the connections and urgencies that usually elude us, or even seem beyond the reach of perception.
Fitzcarraldo, 224 pages, £12.99