REVIEWED BY JEFF TAYLOR
Polly Crosby (HarperCollins Publishers: 2022)
About four years ago I visited Orford Ness for the first time. I was inspired to take my trip to the 12 mile long shingle spit after reading Paddy Heazell’s fascinating book Most Secret The Hidden History of Orford Ness (The History Press: 2010), which described its history of eighty years as a base for the British military, the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and the US Department of Defence. Years before, I had read about the Ness in W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (New Directions: 1998), the author’s melancholic description of a solitary walk along the Suffolk coast.
Sebald wrote: ‘My sense of being on ground intended for purposes transcending the profane was heightened by a number of buildings that resembled temples or pagodas, which seemed quite out of place in these military installations. But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe’.
The Rings of Saturn has been described as ‘A transcendent piece of psychogeographic writing’. That may be the case but psychogeography seems to me a complicated way of talking about sense of place. If you are intending to visit Orford Ness, and if achieving a real sense of place is your thing, I would recommend the above books, but adding to your list Polly Crosby’s recently published The Unravelling (HarperCollins Publishers: 2022). It is set on a fictional version of Orford Ness, albeit one which is located slightly further up the coast somewhere between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The island is called Dohhalund and this is where the young Tartelin Brown ‘accepts a job with the reclusive [and extremely old] Marianne Stourbridge’… ‘Tartelin is tasked with hunting butterflies for Marianne’s research’.
Shifting back and forth between the 1920s, 50s and the summer of 2018, the novel shifted me back and forth between myth, memory and reality. There are touches of magical realism which left me thinking what did really happen in those eighty years of military activity and, left to human devices, what will the world become.
In the acknowledgments, at the end of the book, the author writes that Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn hugely influenced her writing. I haven’t noticed this referred to in any of the reviews I’ve seen. It needs to be taken into account.