Declan O’Driscoll

Earthward Glances

Hermit, Jade Angeles Fitton, Hutchinson Heinemann, 2023, pp.304, £18.99 (hardcover)

Sea Bean, Sally Huband, Hutchinson Heinemann, 2023, pp.352, £18.99 (hardcover)

Amid the white noise of anger – the stomach-tightening turmoil of confusion and alarm – where can silence be found? When a body defies the judgement of its own best interests and begins to be a source of lingering pain, where can solace be found? For both Jade Angeles Fitton, whose memoir begins in the midst of repeated and manipulative control by her partner, and Sally Huband who, early on in her book details the way in which her autoimmune system has begun to damage her joints, the answer lies with immersion in the natural world.

Fitton had an early insight into the potential rewards of time spent looking at nature – even if it was only through illustrations – when her mother brought home several copies of Kit Williams’ book Masquerade, with its promise that an exacting dissection of the text would reveal the location of an 18-carat gold hare, with gemstones attached. To let one’s thoughts run loose among the hyper-realistic field mice and oak leaves of the book’s pages was to anticipate an escape to new modes of wonder. It would have been impossible then to know how the visions created by those pages would suggest another type of life to her many years on, when an ill-judged relationship had become increasingly intolerable.

It is in the middle of that fractious, confining relationship that we first meet Fitton. She is the subject of constant suspicion and surveillance by her partner and, as is so often the case when seen objectively from outside, the basis for the continuance of this relationship is difficult to comprehend. The only clue given is that ‘He doesn’t find living easy either, doesn’t feel like he fits in, that’s why I feel a connection to him’. Held together by her manipulated feelings of guilt and faltering expectations of change, the pairing continues on its irresolute path. Any hope that the bucolic setting of a barn they relocate to might pacify her partner are brutally extinguished when he smashes her head against a wall in an episode of outrage both uncontrolled and controlling. After a decision by him to take a job hundreds of miles from this rural location, the discordant noise abates and suddenly, there is blissful quiet. Now the sounds that were always there can be heard and being alone allows a long exhalation that even the reader can share:

All is glitter and transparency, all is new in its body and yet to take on the solidity of age . . . All this transformation is reminding me that time is still passing, despite my dormant existence, and I’m not sure I want it to. I want to freeze this point in my life – for once, I don’t want anything to change. Can’t we just stop for a minute?

Living alone in the countryside eventually prompts thoughts that she is becoming a hermit – though there is an elasticity to how that term is defined – and a search for those who preceded her in their wish to live a life free of the demands of society and other humans. Among those she reads about is Hope Bourne who, like her, lived on the moors of Devon. Her precedent is recent enough for a local farmer to recall meeting her and, on occasion, leaving his children with Hope for a day of education about the plants and animals of the moors. Like her, Fitton never completely eschews the company of others.

A demand for increased rent necessitates a move to a new location by the sea. Here, among the many finds that each new tide brings – whether the perplexing beauty of a Montagu’s crab or the unwanted accumulations of plastic – she also finds within herself a willingness to take risks that might be constrained by the presence of others; a recklessness that can take the form of unconstrained activity by the the sea or a push back against the assumptions of a society that expects both productivity and gregariousness. This, she believes, places particular pressure on women to perform accepted and predictable roles. The latter trait leads to a consideration of those Japanese people – both male and female – described as Hikikomori; possibly over 500,000 people who rarely leave their bedrooms, only connecting with others through technology. Extreme as that reaction to the pressures of a capitalist economy is, she quotes Jiddu Krishnamurti to pertinent effect, saying, ‘It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society’.
In sharing with us many details of her life, Fitton is excellent company; always interesting and telling her stories as if in direct conversation with the reader. Much as this relaxed style has to recommend it, it’s a pity that a few too many clichés were allowed to remain in the finished text. At her best, she can stimulate the reader’s mind with descriptions of the natural world to which she is so attentive. This fruitful engagement leads us to realise how fervently she has internalised a vision of her life that can now be the only acceptable way for her to live. Further into the book, there will be an opening out to a life that is shared rather than lived alone, but it will always need the option of solitude – ‘solitude is my lodestone; it’s how I get back to myself’ – and the close proximity of nature.

The opening of Hermit repeats the words ‘Eyes down’ three times. An incantation to ward off trepidation in that instance. The same incantation begins the book’s epilogue but is now a simple internal instruction to watch her footing on wet rocks. So much has changed between those earthward glances and Fitton demonstrates the vitality she has gained in the years between being downcast and uplifted by writing a memoir of great self-revelation and immense dignity.

Most people long for a state of transcendence that will, on occasion at least, lift them beyond the everyday tedium of life. How we find such moments and what we expect them to do for us varies greatly between people. Lucky is the person who can find their sublime moments through simple means. A separate matter is the way in which we cope with the dilemmas that come our way and the uncertain shape of a future impacted by illness or poverty. It is striking that both Fitton and Sally Huband – rational beings though they obviously are – cling to superstitious practices at times of crisis. But who can decry the person who, in a moment ofintense anguish, seeks a talisman or sacred entreaty to get them through their torment?

Faced with having to cope with palindromic rheumatism, a form of inflammatory arthritis that causes the autoimmune system to attack the joints in her body, Huband was in one sense fortunate. Newly located in the Shetland Islands with her husband and two children (whose births had led to the condition) she finds herself mentally, and even physically, reconstructed by immersing herself in the manifestations of nature deposited on the shoreline near her new home. This interest develops into a near obsession with beachcombing that eventually brings her to many of the islands within the Shetlands archipelago and then to other islands, including Texel, an island in the Netherlands. The ‘sea bean’ of the book’s title is the item she desires most of all. It looks beautiful and stores within it both the seed of the monkey ladder vine (Entada gigas) and the secret of its journey from the Caribbean to the shores of the Shetland Islands. It has also been regarded as a ‘protective charm’ by fishermen and pregnant women and in one horrific case, its possession was used as part of the evidence against a Shetland woman called Katherine Jonesdochter, who was accused of being a witch, found guilty and executed.
Huband tells her story in a less personally self-revelatory fashion than Fitton, but the form of her writing – incorporating dialect words from the Shetlands and explaining how languages cross-fertilised to form resonant, nourishing words – is exceptionally appealing. Her descriptive writing is also deeply immersive and immediate. Here, for example, is her description of what she sees on Foula, the remote island furthest from the main Shetland Island:

High on Sorberlie, a painted lady – a migrant butterfly – lands on the grass and then launches out over the cliff’s edge to become atiny speck of summer flying north over a vast expanse of ocean. Moments later, as if in exchange, a single swallow appears . . . The swallow crests the cliff in near-vertical flight, slows and then levels out to skim low over the grass, all the way down the steep slope to the sea. And all the while, above us and below us, fulmars circle and circle.

Often we seem to be right there with her, looking over her shoulder as she pays close attention to tiny sea creatures: sea squirts, copepods, comb jellies, pram bugs. She is deeply appreciative of nature’s lack of judgement and the complete absence of affectation or empty performance in the honest endeavours of animals of all sizes. This is in notable contrast to the profligate, profit-seeking humans whose wasteful activities often enrage her. But she also appreciates those humans who understand and appreciate the ways of nature and traditions that sought no more than was needed. For her, it is confounding that the nature that affords us so much and in which we find relief from the tensions of our competitive society is the same nature that is repeatedly disregarded and abused. Everywhere she goes, she finds plastic – as Fitton did when she too went beachcombing – by the sea’s edge, among the rocks and in the stomachs of the fulmars she learns to dissect. For both women, the sea is a sourceof obsession and enchantment. To stand and look at the ever-changing, ever-moving sea is to be in awe of its power while being calmed by its repetitions. The pain Huband feels and that limits her ability to walk is lessened by medical interventions but is further leavened by proximity to the sea and can seem to disappear when she becomes preoccupied – to the exclusion of all else – by her search for sea glass or lobster pot tags or bottles that might contain messages. She also becomes a regular sender of messages in bottles.
Sea Bean is a book concerned, to a great extent, with locating oneself in the landscape and finding the ways in which an individual body, with its particular failings and strengths, can best be accommodated within that place. After a ‘missed miscarriage’, she receives little in the way of comfort or kindly care. Hers is a body that must be fixed: ‘I could undergo a surgical procedure called an Evacuation of the Retained Products of Conception.’ But there is a mind there too that must try to reconcile loss, discomfort and fear: ‘I was reduced to a body without a mind. My body had harboured a life that had died and I was just supposed to get on with it.’ Such ordeals allow Huband to feel a deep affinity with those animals she watches going through life-and-death moments. She sees a seal pup being washed away from its mother by an indifferent sea. She understands the essential unsentimentality of nature and the struggle in which all animals are joined; the blood and milk of life:

a seal lies on her side. Her hind flippers are drenched in fresh blood.
A tiny, clean-furred pup is suckling, all skin and bone but looking vital and alive. The seal shifts and the pup unlatches; the fur around her teat is wet with the froth of milk. It makes me think of the grey seal who lost her pup in the waves, if her milk still seeps into the salt water of the sea.


Declan O’Driscoll reviews translated fiction regularly for The Irish Times. He has also written reviews for the Dublin Review of Books, the LA Review of Books and the TLS.

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