Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sightlines - Kathleen Jamie

'Findings' was a revelation of a read for me. Generally when a book absorbs me I'm happy to go along with it without really wondering how the trick is done, with Jamie it's different, possibly because of the things she manages to convey without explicitly writing them. 'Sightlines' is in many ways more of the same, a companion volume to 'Findings', and I very much hope that in the fullness of time there will be another. If there's a difference it's that I felt 'Sightlines' was more thematic, but perhaps it's that I'm now far more familiar with Jamie's style because on reflection 'Findings' contains all the same motifs. Perhaps the difference is that just as we know her better now she in turn knows us her audience, and what we need from her. I don't want to repeat myself too much but I think it's worth saying again that as with 'Findings', 'Sightlines' makes me feel I'm having a conversation. Each chapter has me rummaging through my own experience looking for connections, it's absorbing and deeply satisfying.

On this reading though there are two things I've been particularly mulling over. The first is in a chapter about an archaeological dig, a cist grave is opened and later Jamie writes a poem about it ("No-one noticed if he opened his eyes,/acknowledged the dark,/felt around, found and drank/ the mead provided,/supposing himself dead.") she talks then for a little about how thrilling finding her way as a writer was, but what really brings it home is the revelation that the body in the cist was female, the thing is that if she had written about a woman it would have  read as a metaphor about herself and that isn't what she wanted. It's a moment in the book that demonstrates the craft behind it and as such felt quite intimate. He or She - on the page it's one letter more or less but enough to entirely change the meaning of what we're reading - now that's something to consider.

The following chapter is called 'The Gannetry', there is a visit to Noss in Shetland on a midsummers day with Tim Dee - it's a well documented day because Dee also wrote about it in his book 'The Running Sky' and contributed the chapter to 'Archipelago' and I'm quietly pleased to have read both accounts. Different writers with different preoccupations seeing some of the same things in the same place. It's another chance to see the craft involved. Dee describes the whales as bringing "up the wet of the deep on their backs and showed it to the sky and the auks and the gannets and us. Then they rolled forwards like dark planets bowled under the sea." Jamie's killer whales: "With a slow sea motion they rolled up, fin first, then backs so broad the seawater spilled off on either side, then we saw their nearsides, a medley of white and black. As those those three tilted back down in unison..." The same but different. 

Another section - 'Three ways of looking at St Kilda' (why are people so fascinated by those particular Islands?) should probably be required reading for anyone with a tendency to get carried away by images of romance and wilderness - both exist but never quite how you might picture it. The Scottish one sailed to St Kilda a few years ago and thought it beautiful. Listening to his account though, and now Jamie's, I find that it's basically inhabited - there's an army base and a warden as well as sundry researchers throughout the summer, and it gets a lot of visitors. A lot. I felt slightly cheated having imagined a deserted place where landing would be a transgression almost akin to disturbing a grave or stealing from a nest, and not a tourist attraction.   

'Sightlines' is dedicated for the island goers, more often than not it looks North and to sea. The lure of islands is habit forming (I have an ever increasing shelf of books on the subject to underline this). They are places to be sought out, explored, known from shore to shore, and returned to - I think the same description covers this book. 


  1. Lovely to find this review. I agree with every word -- and loved the book, too.

  2. Lovely to find this review. I agree with every word -- and loved the book, too.