RogerBW's Blog

Underland, Robert Macfarlane 20 January 2020

2019 non-fiction. Macfarlane explores natural and man-made underground spaces.

This is another Book of the Week condensation; the five segments used here deal with caves under the Mendips, the Paris catacombs, the Timavo caves in north-eastern Italy, prehistoric cave art in the Lofoten archipelago, and ice caves in a glacier in Greenland. Perhaps deliberately, they all come out much the same: present-tense descriptions of Macfarlane's descent (usually with guides), some side notes on what he's inspired to think about while he's there, and usually his return to the surface.

The Book of the Week version was read by the author, and I couldn't help feeling he was enjoying the sound of his voice a little too much, especially when he gets to the end of a terribly important paragraph and signals it by spacing out the last. Few. Words. The writing's sometimes like that too; a lyrical flight of fancy inside the writer's own head isn't what I came here for, but rather the things they saw and did that inspired that flight of fancy.

There's no connective tissue (except for some early musings on deep time and the idea that we should try to be good ancestors); it's just five distinct episodes with nothing beyond the obvious to link them. That may well be a flaw in the condensation; when Macfarlane tries to hook the enjoyable trips up to the philosophy, the few sentences allotted come over as trite. Is there also some self-satisfaction, "har har I have been to this amazing place that you will never get to see"? I don't know; I thought there was, but by then I was already getting irked with the author.

This might well be better at full length, but I wasn't sufficiently hooked by these excerpts to want to get hold of a copy.

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