Review: John Banville on Robert Macfarlane's Underland

We, or at least we who live in the temperate zones, imagine, necessarily, that the ground we stand on is more or less solid. Robert Macfarlane is here to tell us otherwise. The world according to him is hollowed out with caves, sinkholes, burial chambers, crevasses, mines, meltwater, moulins, and more, much more. He loves the shadowlands that lurk below, loves and fears them. It would be no surprise if he were to announce that his next book is to be a nonfictional version of Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Macfarlane, who teaches English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, is one of the most significant writers at work today. He is a superb naturalist, who seems to have been everywhere and noticed everything, and is as much at home, or at least as calm, by the shore of a starless river deep under the Slovenian Carso as he is in intellectual contemplation of dark matter, the stuff that makes up some 95 percent of the universe, even though no one has seen it, and likely no one ever will.

The Macfarlane style is a kind of muscular prose-poetry that manages somehow to be at once impressionistic and precise. He uses every rhetorical device at his disposal. These include onomatopoeia—“Hiss, thrum, shiver of snakes in the torchlight, whip-slap as falling rope cracks tight against stone”; alliteration—“Small spindrift cyclones roam the slopes”; and a kind of sprung rhythm that the syncopatedly musical poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would have recognized—“Late light glints in the west of every raindrop held in the bones of the lichen, beading on the bosses of moss.” And he is unapologetic in his lyrical reaction to natural phenomena. A geologist shows him some quartz fragments brought up by a drill bit from bedrock under a mile of Greenland ice. “‘They’re beautiful,’ I say. ‘Desert diamonds from the bottom of the world,’” to which the wry answer comes, “‘I can tell you’re not a scientist.’”

Well, he is, sort of, but before anything he is a storyteller. He has been to see the world, and what is underneath the world, and has returned with a bookful of fabulous tales. He begins with what might be the first, alluring line of a bedtime story: “The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree.”

The short, opening section is a collage of captivating images and events stretching over aeons, from a handprint on a cave wall left thirty-five thousand years ago to the recent rescue of a young soccer team and its coach trapped by floodwaters two and a half miles inside a cave system in Thailand. The team’s rescuers knew the boys were alive when they came upon handprints in the muddy walls of the cave. Macfarlane loves to make links across what he calls deep time.

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The book abounds in amazing facts, breathtaking surprises, delightful anecdotes. Here is a treasure from the trove. Paris, he tells us, stands upon a second, hidden metropolis, a sort of dark negative of the overground City of Light. In the hundreds of miles of catacombs beneath, made by the quarrying of limestone—Auden would have loved this book—which was cut, hauled up and used to build the city, it was discovered that the damp, dark quarry voids could be used for growing mushrooms. “By 1940 there were some 2,000 mushroom farmers working underneath Paris.”

And then there is fungus. In the 1990s a Canadian forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard, made one of the most momentous natural discoveries of our time: that under the forest floor there exists what she called “an underground social network,” popularly known as a “wood wide web.” Trees, as Macfarlane writes, are linked through their root tips by “super-fine threads known as ‘hyphae’ that fungi send out through the soil. These hyphae interconnect … to create a network of astonishing complexity and extent.” By way of this system, trees communicate, and even help each other. The implication is clear: nature is not disparate, but “an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part.”

But Macfarlane is no dewy-eyed tree-hugger—though what’s wrong with hugging trees?—and is acutely aware of the damage we have inflicted, and are inflicting, on the world. In Finland he visits Olkiluoto Island, where a vast tomb is being built to contain nuclear waste, “perhaps the darkest matter we have ever made.” The underland is dark and deep, and monstrosities lurk there.

All the same, he obviously believes celebration to be more effective than lamentation. He ends with a vignette of himself and his four-year-old son stopping on a walk in an English forest: “I reach my hand towards his and meet it palm to palm, finger to finger, his skin strange as stone against mine.” And the book’s great circle closes.

John Banville’s latest novel is Mrs Osmond.

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Coming soon: John Balaban on The Tale of Kieu, Sarah Kerr on Jason DeParle.

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