Review published on June 24, 2017.
The marshland of the north Kent coast has long been recognised as one of the most important natural wetlands in Northern Europe and it is thought to host around 300,00 migrant birds as they travel from Africa to the Arctic; the marshes are also a natural flood protection for London. There are many positives to modern living, warm and dry homes, running water, electricity and fast internet. However, some choose a simpler life, and Carol Donaldson was one of those. Working for the RSPB on the Thames Estuary, she lived in a caravan beneath a willow. It could be tough at times, cold winters froze the pipes, storms would frequently knock out the electricity, but within a few feet of the door, she was immersed in the local landscape. This uncomplicated life was about to come to an abrupt end; her relationship with her partner Connor was unravelling and the powers that be decide that she cannot live in her caravan anymore. She is about to be evicted.
The wild beauty of the marshes has drawn many who wish to live on the fringes of society or escape from the claustrophobia of London. It is a classic edgeland landscape that has the remains of industry, World War Two relics and homes in amongst the creeks and marshlands. It is across this landscape that Donaldson begins to travel, partly to escape her painful memories, partly to find others who have made this their home, but also to reacquaint herself with the seascape. It is a place that still faces battles though; having stopped the airport being built, the people who have come here for the tranquillity of being near water will face increased pressure from corporate and government interests.
Weaving together a personal story of an author seeking comfort from the natural world is a popular genre these days which has its roots in H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. Donaldson’s writing is gentle and fluent, taking as much care over the describing the bleak landscape as she travels on foot and by boat, as she does when opening up about her past and the new direction that she wants to head. Her encounters with friends and strangers who live all over the region from Gravesend to Whitstable about the way they make their livelihoods make for equally stimulating reading. It was also interesting to learn about a landscape in the UK that I knew almost nothing about, in particular about the long history that has happened there. It has a stunning cover too, another great book from Little Toller.
Paul Cheney 4/3
On the Marshes by Carol Donaldson
Little Toller Books 9781908213501 hbk Apr 2017
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