There is something immediately seedy about urban wildlife, something threatening, something unnerving. In an era when half the world’s population now lives in cities, humanity is turning its back on nature. City parks should be trimmed and manicured — neat, tidy, well-lit, safe. Nature, in all its danger, should really be out there, somewhere else, in the countryside — in the wilderness. As humans become urban creatures, they foster a mistrust for the wildlife that creeps into their concrete confines. This, then, is a book about that mistrust.
Luckily, Melissa Harrison picks us a gentle and intimate path through the green spaces of own her personal corner of South London. She does not, however, present mistrust per se, but the four intertwined characters are highlighted because they are the trusting few, where the many thousand possible others pass through every day without a glance.
Most days eight-year-old TC bunks off school to explore forgotten corners and follow animal footprints in the dust. He’s always hopeful of finding owl pellets, with their secret vole bone contents wrapped up in fluff and fibre. Sophia, 78 and a long-standing resident of the local housing estate she has seen slip into decline during her half-century residence tries to recall, or recreate, a more caring time when her children played free and wild in the little park. Sophia’s rather privileged nine-year-old granddaughter Daisy lives a few gentrified streets away; she is allowed some freedom on her regular visits, but all the while she feels the shadow of her mother’s disapproval, that mistrust again. Josef, working late shifts in the takeaway and homesick for the lost farm in Poland, recognizes another lost soul when he meets TC in the park, and though forty years separate them, there is, nevertheless, a kindred sympathy.
The four disparate characters’ lives cross and intertwine like the narrow tracks across the common, and the green space itself becomes a fifth, brought alive by Harrison’s clear and lyrical prose. She is no country-dwelling nature columnist. No, they would look out to distant vistas of sweeping hills, rolling fields, long lines of hedgerow, or murky far-off mountain peaks. Instead, like any true urban naturalist, she has her ears tuned to the tumble of a blackbird song, and her eyes firmly fixed on the nearest tree, with its squirrel skittering crabwise up the rough bark.
Whether it be the blind thistles pushing through cracks in the broken tarmac, or the tiny green tortrix caterpillar dangling on its impossibly thin thread from an ancient oak pollard, it is clear that Harrison is comfortable (she even revels, perhaps) in the sometimes scrappy remnants of a once greater countryside now enveloped, eaten into, broken, dishevelled, but still wild, still wonderful. She has successfully and evocatively woven them into a superb and captivating debut novel. It’s the first book of my year, and it’ll take some beating.
Richard Jones, curious entomologist and ardent urban naturalist, is the author of Mosquito, Little Book of Nits, and Extreme Insects, all currently available from Bookseller Crow.
He blogs at www.bugmanjones.com