Emergency, Daisy Hildyard’s second novel, is narrated by a woman living alone during lockdown. Trapped between four walls, she recalls her childhood in the 1990s in a village in Yorkshire. The protagonist’s memories and reflections, however, refuse to respect boundaries. Past and present, nature and humanity, life and death intermix, ebbing and flowing in a stream of prose that carries the reader on an exhilarating and frequently provocative and violent ride.
Emergency is advertised as “reinventing the pastoral novel for the climate change era”, and the rural landscape Hildyard depicts is no Arcadia. The countryside she describes is very much that of the Anthropocene. The narrator remembers looking forward to the seasonal spraying of the fields as a child because she was forced to stay inside with her friend Clare, their indoor playtime protecting them from the “invisible poisons”. Yet she also admires the beauty of the spraying, the “ballerina skirts of vapour” being exhaled by the farmer’s tractor. The chemical menace of the pesticides, the possibility that her bloodstream could be infected “by its tiniest contaminant component”, only adds to her awe.
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Her indoor life is spent with friends, parents and two much older half-sisters who drift in and out. Much of her time is also spent outdoors, immersed both in the goings-on of the farms and in the wilder world of the fields and woods, where she observes the relationship between the two.
The local quarry is a contradictory zone of interaction between nature and humanity. It is a focal point for much of the narrator’s wildlife-watching – sand martins catch insects, falcons hunt sand martins, a kestrel pursues a vole – but also a site of exchanges between her village and the global economy, both conscious and unconscious, industrial and infinitesimal. Quarried stone is shipped from Yorkshire to Norway and China to build motorways and cities, while “single hairs, and skin-flakes from the workers’ bodies” flow to the far-flung corners of the world.
Emergency is not a paean to nature, but an acknowledgement of the complicated boundaries between nature and the man-made in rural life amid a changing and increasingly globalised economy. The quarry, similar to the farms, has an impact on the landscape and on the animals and plants that live there. The most poignant example is a lapwing that lays her eggs daily in deep tyre tracks. They hold a nest lined with straw that, as grass, had “journeyed through a cow’s many stomachs”. Every day the eggs are smashed by a tractor driving in and out of the farm.
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This alertness to the ambivalent connections between opposed states – the wild and the farmed, life and death, beauty and ugliness – are a hallmark of Hildyard’s writing. The litter the narrator collects lodges in “slumps of dirty sand and grit” creating “ugly plants”, but “a smooth piece of marbled plastic” is deemed desirable, and kept. As an adult, she thinks about how particles from the plastic toys and trinkets she had as a child “are circulating, right now, through the bodies of newly hatched birds”. A red admiral butterfly emerging from its chrysalis is not the calm transformation evoked in Eric Carle’s classic children’s book, but almost repulsively violent: “It twisted back and forth, and flipped itself, the contorted motion as sickening as watching someone being tortured.”
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” In a recent interview Hildyard explains that “in this novel I was trying to tune into some quietened voices or sounds or perspectives across different human identities, across distances, and also from non-human beings. I wanted to expand the realities available to the story.”
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Riffing on the famous sentence from Middlemarch, Hildyard writes that “I like to think that I would go mad if I tuned in to everything, all the time, the squirrel’s heart beat or the roar of growing grass, but this is most likely a lie… the business of relentlessly prioritising and deleting the details of the world is the mad element.” Hildyard’s precise prose and roving vision inspire an expanded, saner attention to the world around us, to the connections and emergencies which ordinarily escape us, or even seem beyond the range of perception.
Fitzcarraldo, 224pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma