Surfacing, Kathleen Jamie; This Tilting World, Colette Fellous

A poignant series of essays by a much-loved writer reflect the times we live in, says Dani Garavelli

The prospect of a new collection of essays by Kathleen Jamie is enough to throw those who look to her as a literary polestar into a state of euphoria.

Her previous books, Findings and Sightlines, are things of shimmering wonder. Jamie casts her curious eye on everything from corncrakes to cancer cells, transforming them from the quotidian to the extraordinary with language so thrilling it makes all other writing feel insipid for a while. 

As befits our times, Surfacing turns out to be tonally different to its predecessors. Our world is beset on all sides: by Trump, by Brexit, by climate change. Jamie’s life too is in a state of flux: her parents dead, her children leaving home and her future uncharted territory. Gone is the exuberant “Ho” of salmon in the River Braan and, in its place, a sense of dislocation. 

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

Jamie’s powers of observation have not flagged. She continues to conjure up heartstopping images – “a ghostly tanker sailing over the pine trees” or an archaeological site with a “raw, slightly wounded look, like skin after you peel off a sticking plaster”. But the passing years have rendered her less zestful, more subdued. In ‘The Eagle’, she tries to keep track of a pair of birds, but she becomes distracted and loses sight of them. The birds “treat the air: as a resource, a birthright, theirs in never-ending abundance”. She, however, seems less assured of her place in the universe, and of the direction she should take.

Structurally, too, Surfacing represents a departure. Around two thirds of the book is made up of two long essays, ‘In Quinhagak’ and ‘Links of Noltland I’.  Both see her join excavations, the first in Alaska, the other in Orkney. Here, she is literally digging up fragments of the long-dead and piecing them together to understand a way of life. 


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In other, shorter essays, the excavations are metaphorical. Untethered from care obligations, Jamie has time to reflect on past adventures, such as the months she spent in Tibet in 1991, and on the losses of middle age. 

In  ‘Elders’ she tells of her father’s passing; in ‘From the Window’ she gazes out at a bone-white sky on the day her daughter leaves home. It is the little details Jamie picks up on that makes these essays so touching. The dram at her father’s elbow, the cool, calm pendant round her daughter’s neck are flecks of gold, more vivid and valued for being sparingly employed.

The narrator of Colette Fellous’  This Tilting World has been similarly battered by time and tide; her friend Alain has died at sea, and tourists have been murdered in the terrorist attack on the beach near Sousse in Tunisia, her homeland.

The dual shocks send her off on a Proustian journey. Preparing to leave, she drifts along on a current of memories from childhood in Tunisia and then France. The sharp nostalgia invoked by sounds and smells mingles lyrically with memories of her parents’ loveless marriage and with stories of dramatic lives. 

The book’s fragmentary nature has echoes of Roland Barthes, whose genius she invokes. Beautifully translated by Sophie Lewis, This Tilting World is a fluid, satisfying portrait of a complex country and an exploration of the experience of the Jewish community within its borders.

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie (Sort of Books, £12.99)

This Tilting World by Colette Fellous, translated by Sophie Lewis (LesFugitives, £13)

Illustration: Emanuel Santos