The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard

Review published on November 17, 2017.

Daisy Hildyard has a PhD in the history of science and is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Northumbria University. She has previously published a novel, Hunters in the Snow (2013), which won a Somerset Maugham Award. The premise for her new book, an extended essay, requires some explanation. There’s your individual, physical body, and then there’s your “second body,” which has an unwitting global impact – by contributing to climate change, for instance. It’s a poor choice of phrase, I think, as the title does not immediately suggest anything about the content of the book and will confuse those who try to take it literally rather than as a symbol of agency and displacement.

To explore how all these secondary human bodies impact on the animal world, the author meets a butcher, a wildlife crime investigator, a biologist and a fungus researcher. In between these encounters she thinks about the pigeon on her kitchen floor and her ability to make convincing pheasant noises. When the river rises and floods her house, destroying most of what her family owns, she sees it as physical evidence of the second body and remembers that this is what many Pacific islanders have already experienced or soon will.

The various interviews and experiences that make up this book are moderately interesting, but they don’t fit together to make any coherent argument. Moreover, the author undermines her own philosophising by exhibiting no real anxiety or sense of urgency over the state of the world: it’s all an abstraction here, which lets both the author and readers off the hook. It’s hard to be other than disgusted by the choices she reports making after the flood: “I enjoyed throwing out my things” and “I booked cheap flights to an island in the Mediterranean.”

“I was insulated against any real horror,” she freely admits, and that’s the problem with this book. It pretends to be in search of evidence of indefensible human impact, but it only sees the odd selection of instances that it wants to see, and issues no call for personal change. Our environmental situation is so drastic as to make this not just pointless but almost immoral.

Rebecca Foster 2/1

The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard
Fitzcarraldo Editions 9781910695470 pbk Nov 2017

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