Book Review: Ness by Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood (Review by Brian Toal)

Ness by Robert MacFarlane and Stanley Donwood

‘Ness’ is a very strange, brilliant book. It’s part poetry, part song, part novella, a stunning combination which explores an apocalyptic world where the land comes to life because it needs to come to life. The setting is on a salt-and-shingle island upon which rests a ruined concrete structure known as The Green Chapel. In this structure there is a ritual led by a figure known as The Armourer, a ritual with terrible intent, a ritual involving the Song of the Bomb. The Armourer is assisted by The Engineer, The Botanist, The Ornithologist and The Physicist. Together they are hatching terrible plans to wreak destruction on the earth. Moving inexorably towards the Green Chapel are five forms – more than human, made of tidal drift, green moss and deep time – where they will finally converge and become Ness. 

It’s a glorious mixture of the ultra-modern and the archaic, reminiscent of Russell Hoban’s ‘Ridley Walker’. The sections of the book are divided by hagstones, which is a clever touch, and Donwood’s illustrations evoke the desolate, dreary setting of Orford Ness in Suffolk, a place redolent of centuries of warfare, including a recently decommissioned atomic weapons research establishment. The book has been called ‘Gawain and the Green Knight for the atomic age, a black mass for dark times.’ Indeed. It’s a book to be read over and over, aloud, and enjoyed. I’m sure in years to come it will be viewed as a modern classic. 

Ness is available from Waterstones Byres Road

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