Books

Wild Signs and Star Paths, Tristan Gooley; Milkman, Anna Burns

Jane Graham gets happily lost in an unusual guide to the miracles of the natural world

There is a harmonic balance to the title of writer and broadcaster Tristan Gooley’s new book which sets the tone for his alternative travel guide as delightfully as the silver-gleaming illustration on its cover. Wild Signs and Star Paths is a seductive heading for this guide to developing a navigational awareness, but Gooley’s promise to teach his readers to instantly ‘sense direction from stars and plants, forecast weather from woodland sounds, and predict the next action of an animal’ is no over-sell. 

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Gooley has an established history of teaching urban digital slaves how to tune in to nature in the way our ancestors did instinctively. His previous books, including How to Read Water and The Natural Navigator, can attest to his years of expertise. The pleasure he takes in – to use an old-fashioned phrase – ‘communing with nature’, is evident in everything he writes, all of which brim with a charming, boyish enthusiasm. 

Gooley inspires a joyful awe in the daily occurrences which offer observant travellers a key to the planet’s miraculous system.

Don’t mistake him for an excitable amateur though; explorer and navigator Gooley has dedicated his life to gaining knowledge through experience, whether he’s piloting small planes to the Arctic, leading exhibitions across Africa or getting up close and personal with Bedouin nomads. If you have the slightest interest in the natural world, or in contemporary society maintaining any kind of relationship with it, sitting next to him at a dinner party might be even more fun than scooching up to David Attenborough (who can, I’m told, be a tad tetchy). 

What’s wonderful about this book is not just that it is full of helpful instructions for decoding the clues to hidden activity all around us, from the flick of a lizard’s tail to a flutter in a bramble hedge. Thorough a careful choice of language – which manages to bring a romance to scientific vocabulary and practical advice – Gooley also communicates and inspires a joyful awe in the countless daily occurrences which offer observant travellers a key to the planet’s miraculous system. It’s handy to be able to spot an accumulation of altocumulus lenticularos if you’re thinking of putting a washing out. But far more rewarding is to understand what has led to this creation of ‘hills in the sky’ and, even better, to marvel at their beauty every time. 

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There have been many novels written about scarred post-Troubles Northern Ireland; I applaud Belfast-born Anna Burns for finding an insightful approach which frees it from the usual cliches and narratives. She avoids the weight-bearing vocabulary of her subject by setting Milkman in an unnamed city, divided by two tribes both bearing the brunt of an oppressive patriarchal regime. Her protagonist, Middle sister (no Theresas or Billy boys here) is an 18 year old woman navigating her way around the many unofficial tests of allegiance, loyalty, and moral propriety which underpin her ‘hair-trigger’ society. 

Middle sister keeps her head down – literally hidden in a book – but inadvertently attracts the attention of a high profile paramilitary leader; the Milkman. His abusive sexual exploitation of her fuels feverish local gossip, which both glamorises and shames her, according to which misinterpretation of this one-sided ‘relationship’ the whisperers choose to embrace. Burns ingeniously draws comparisons between the hypocrisies and injustices of a sectarian society and the troubled and misunderstood experience of female adolescence. That she successfully tackles her serious mission with razor sharp wit, warm humour and great compassion is even more impressive. This one’s a keeper. 

Wild Signs and Star Paths, Tristan Gooley (Sceptre, from £5.99)

Milkman, Anna Burns (Faber & Faber, from £10.49)

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