Daisy Hildyard - To be a living thing is to exist in two bodies. You breathe something in, and what you breathe out is something else.
Daisy Hildyard, The Second Body, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017.
Every living thing has two bodies. To be an animal is to be in the possession of a physical body, a body which can eat, drink and sleep; it is also to be integrated within a local ecosystem which overlaps with ecosystems which are larger and further away. To be a living thing is to exist in two bodies. You breathe something in, and what you breathe out is something else. Your first body is the place you live in, made out of your own personal skin. Your second body is not so solid as the other one, but much larger. This second body is your own literal and physical biological existence - it is a version of you. It is not a concept, it is your own body. The language we have at the moment is weak: we might speak vaguely of global connections; of the emission and circulation of gases; of impacts. And yet, at some microscopic or intangible scale, bodies are breaking into one another. The concept of a global impact is not working for us, and in the meantime, your body has already eaten the distance. Your first body could be sitting alone in a church in the centre of Marseille, but your second body is floating above a pharmaceutical plant on the outskirts of the city, it is inside a freight container in the docks, and it is also thousands of miles away, on a flood plain in Bangladesh, in another man's lungs. every animal body implicated in the whole world. Even the patient who is anaesthetized on an operating table, barely breathing, is illuminated by surgeon's lamps which are powered with electricity trailed from a plant which is pumping out of its chimneys a white smoke that spreads itself out against the sky. It is understandably difficult to remember that you have anything to do with this second body - your first body is the body you inhabit in your daily life. However, you are alive in both. You have two bodies. In this timely and elegant essay, Daisy Hildyard attempts to capture the second body by looking at it as a part of animal life. She meets Richard, a butcher in Yorkshire, and sees pigs turned into boiled ham; and Gina, an environmental criminologist, who tells her about leopards and silver foxes kept as pets in luxury apartments. She speaks to Luis, a biologist, about the origins of life; and talks to Nadezhda about fungi in an effort to understand how we define animal life. In her own interactions with other animals, she examines how humans and animals engage with one another, or fail to. Eventually, her second body comes to visit her first body when the river flooded her home last year. THE SECOND BODY is a brilliantly lucid account of the dissolving boundaries between all life on earth.
‘Part amateur detective, part visionary, Hildyard’s voice is so intelligent, beguiling and important. Like Sir Thomas Browne or even Annie Dillard, her sly variety of scientific inquiry is incandescent.’
— Rivka Galchen
‘In its insistence on the illusion of individuality and on the participation of human animals in the whole of earthly life, The Second Body might be an ancient text; in its scientific literacy and its mood of ecological disquiet, Daisy Hildyard’s book is as contemporary as the morning paper. If ecstasy means to go outside oneself, the word usually carries connotations of chaos and inarticulacy. Here, however, is a precise and eloquent ecstasy – and this slender book about who we are beyond our own skins is likewise much larger than itself.’ — Benjamin Kunkel
‘Daisy Hildyard has turned her curious, sifting, brilliantly original mind onto the pressing ecological questions of our age. The result is a series of essays as captivating as they are delightful, their object no less than to quietly rewire our thinking.’ — Sarah Howe
‘Hildyard takes us on a white-knuckle philosophical ride through identity, agency, ecology and molecular biology, leaving us vitally disconcerted, but with a strange new sense of community and solidarity. A curious, oblique, important, and fascinating book.’— Charles Foster
‘In The Second Body, Daisy Hildyard gives a body to an idea in a series of curious encounters that take us from the floor of a butcher shop to the computer room of a biologist to the wreckage of a flooded home. Heady and visceral both, this essay revels in the mess and splendour of the world.’
— Eula Biss
Daisy Hildyard, Hunters in the Snow, Vintage, 2014.
After his death, a young woman returns to her grandfather’s farm in Yorkshire. At his desk she finds the book he left unfinished when he died. Part story, part scholarship, his eccentric history of England moves from the founding of the printing press into virtual reality, linking four journeys, separated by the centuries, of four great men. The exiled Edward IV lands in England and marches on London for one final attempt to win back the throne; Tsar Peter the Great, implausibly disguised as a carpenter, follows his own retinue around frozen London; the former African slave Olaudah Equiano takes his book-tour down a Welsh coal-mine; and Herbert, Lord Kitchener, mysteriously disappears at sea in 1916. These are the stories she remembers him telling her, and others too – about medieval miracles and EU agricultural subsidies; old people and fallen kings; homemade fireworks and invented dogs; Arctic ice cores, sunk ships, drowning horses, salt, sperm, carbon and miners. The history of great men loses its way in the stories of ordinary great-grandparents, grandparents and parents, including the historian’s own
Shortly after her grandfather’s death, a young woman returns to his farm to put his effects in order and ready the property for sale. Jimmy, her grandfather, was a historian. She, a PhD student, is following in his footsteps. Among his papers she finds the rough draft of his final work, a collection of accounts of four historical journeys – Edward VI’s return to England in the fifteenth century; Peter the Great who, disguised as a carpenter, toured Northern Europe; former slave and abolitionist campaigner Olaudah Equiano’s travels in Britain and beyond; and Lord Kitchener’s final journey, which saw him lost at sea in 1916. Hunters in the Snow is the narrator’s retelling of Jimmy’s accounts of these journeys and what they reveal about him, held together with her reflections on her life with him and her apprenticeship in his craft.
All the journeys which make up Jimmy’s unfinished history involve deception in one way or another, be it the outright masquerade of Tsar Peter’s Great Embassy, the questions of authenticity regarding Equiano’s autobiography or the conspiracy theories surrounding Kitchener’s shipwreck. Further, the narrator becomes increasingly sceptical of Jimmy’s marshalling of the facts, and of his veracity , both as historian and as adored relative. The venture of picking apart fact from fiction in history as well as living memory, and the subsequent disappointment which results, is a central concern of this novel.
For some, this intersection – or blurring – of fiction and non-fiction may seem part of a recent trend of literary successes such as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be and Laurent Binet’s HHhH, the latter of which can be viewed in part as a response to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a fictional memoir incorporating real events and people interspersed with lengthy sections on the particularities of SS and Nazi ranks, titles and other trivia. A leitmotif of Hunters in the Snow is Jimmy’s assertion that a “a feeling for and a joy in the particular and by itself is necessary to the historian.”
Hildyard’s concentration on journeys, historical travels and the historian’s search for the truth, brings to mind the current tendency for works of popular history – in print and broadcast form – to be characterised as ‘journeys’ or to resemble travelogues, from the patronising and mawkish formats of BBC factual television to the finely wrought efforts of historians such as Graham Robb on France and Max Egremont on East Prussia, and Norman Davies in his remarkable Vanished Kingdoms.
Hildyard’s arena may be fiction rather than history, but I’m happy to say that in her manifest scholarship, neat, light-touch prose and her evident ‘joy in the particular’, she belongs in these writers’ company. The narrative arc and its development is subtle – perhaps too subtle- and decidedly devoid of melodrama. Early on, the narrator remarks of Jimmy, “little actually happened in his life – he didn’t have any history of his own”. We learn little of the narrator herself, unnamed throughout – she seems to do a much better job of concealing her unreliability as a historian than Jimmy ultimately achieved.
But this isn’t to say that the novel is slight, even if its underlying narrative is less ambitious and compelling than the chronicles of journeys in the past and related asides it binds together. There is much wit and dry humour in the narrator’s account of Jimmy’s adversarial relationship with his wife, Liv, who managed their farm.
As a book on journeys, rooted in the Yorkshire of the narrator’s (and author’s) birth, it is pleasing that Hildyard articulates an acute sense of place: the narrative evocatively conveys the snow-clad and crisp feel of her part of the world in winter. This sense of place relates to her aforementioned ‘joy in the particular’ and is neatly encapsulated in the title (taken from the Bruegel painting used for the cover), which refer to a local hunt attended by the narrator during her childhood. Our links with the distant past are also evoked as it transpires that the title also denotes the lavish meetings held by Edward IV – hunts which were characterised by deception, flattering guests’ sense of sporting prowess by offering quarry, which by the design of the forest enclosures, could not escape their arrows. It suggests too, the historian’s – and the narrator’s – hunt for the elusive ‘truth’, following traces of the past on white and yellowing pages.
This is a highly intelligent first novel and Daisy Hildyard is clearly a gifted and sophisticated writer. At its heart is a lesson all historians must learn, on the inevitability of deception, distortion and omission muddying our interpretation of memory, the past and of history itself. Those who seek to make sense of the past will invariably have to face the fact that, to quote Jimmy, “history, like digestion, turns everything brown in the end.” - Francois Gill literateur.com/hunters-in-the-snow-by-daisy-hildyard/
A.N. Wilson, The Spectator
“Comparisons will be made between Hildyard’s work and that of W.G. Sebald. She nods in homage to the great German, partly by the technique of illustrating her text with some smudgy black and white photographs, and partly by weaving her personal journeys around England with meditations upon history. But although there is a debt to Sebald, and an acknowledged debt to the Virginia Woolf of The Death of a Moth, this is a formidably original book. I had no sooner finished it than I started to read it again. It has some of the qualities of Herodotus, being studded with stories, or one of those compendium books, such as Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, in which a whole jumble of assembled information, quotation, story and illusion are interconnected.”
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Kate Saunders, The Times
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Rachel Hore, Independent on Sunday
“Despite the apparently random associations of the narrative, it’s all so beautifully controlled. Thus a description of Peter the Great waiting to watch a ship being carried across a Dutch dyke segues naturally into a discussion about Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, in which a boat is transported through Amazon rainforest, then into a detailed account of the dangerous attempt by the girl and her grandfather one Guy Fawkes’ Night to recreate, from scratch, the sort of fireworks that the Russian Emperor adored.Here is a novel so rich in texture it deserves many rereadings.” Read full review
Lucian Robinson, The Observer
David Evans, The Financial Times
Peter Carty, The Independent
Adam Thorpe, The Guardian
Andrew Marszal, The Telegraph
“Hunters in the Snow is an ambitious, almost impossibly wide-ranging book. It shares the structure of Jimmy’s unfinished history: each section is loosely based around a different historical character. But it interweaves these passages with childhood memories and the present day, straying nonchalantly from medieval history to a trip to the local tip.Unfortunately, the book’s attempts to thread the historical past with recent childhood memories are at times remarkably clumsy … This is undoubtedly a challenging, idiosyncratic novel. It is just a shame that it so frequently trips over its own convoluted design.” Read full review
Kathy Stevenson, The Daily Mail
“Daisy Hildyard’s debut novel makes for interesting reading as she looks at the challenges of studying history through the interpretation of others but, riveting as it is, I found it difficult to find a thread among the many disparate musings. But if you can live without a plot or a denouement, it is a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.” Read full review
Francesca Angelini, The Sunday Times