Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

November 13th, 2022

Savage Gods is a book about writing and a book about being stuck and a book about trying to figure things out. Kingsnorth writes about how he and his wife, Jyoti, bought a house and some land in Ireland because he wanted to feel connected to a place, and because he thought “that the work of being in a place would still [his] unquiet mind” (7). As it turns out: wherever you go, there you are, and if you’re a writer with a tendency to be very much in your head, you will probably still be very much in your head even if you are also doing the physical work of planting trees and tending to fields and growing food. Kingsnorth fantasizes, sometimes, about a bigger change of place, a bigger change of self: “I would like to live on the Grand Canal. I would like to drop all of this and move to Venice with Jyoti and change my name and wear a linen suit every day and wander the streets and drink strange orange drinks in little bars down crumbling alleyways and gaze up at huge Tintorettos in dark old churches, forever” (96). But he doesn’t, or at any rate hasn’t yet. What he has done is written this book, which is partly about the specifics of his life (his sense that his old way of writing no longer serves him, his reactions against his father and his father’s values, when he was younger, and how he feels when his dad eventually takes his own life) and partly about how he conceptualizes the mid-life moment he’s in, which he describes in the context of a talk he heard by Colin Campbell about the idea, in Botswana, that “the first half of our lives is fire, the second water” (32).

My husband read this book a few years ago and loved it, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it, too, though it wasn’t exactly what I expected. I was expecting more about Kingsnorth’s daily life in Ireland, and I liked the moments when he writes specifically about the place he’s in and his experience of it—like at the start of the book when he talks about the field he’s sitting in and describes it as “a long, thin field, grass and dock and plantain and ground ivy, hedged in with thorn and sycamore and elder” (4). Or when he talks about trying to “resist the impulse to catalog” but admits that he’s “been making a list for three years of all the birds that visit our land in the course of the year” and then gives us the “edited highlights”: “Wagtail. Bullfinch. Dunnock. Wren. Collared dove. Robin. Long-tailed tit. Goldfinch. Swift. Swallow. Blackcap. Coal tit. Willow warbler. Sparrowhawk. Fieldfare. Pheasant. Heron” (28). But I ended up liking the other aspects of the book, too, in part because Kingsnorth’s writing, at the sentence/phrase level, is really really satisfying.

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