Neil Gaiman once said aspiring writers shouldn’t just read, but that they should make a point of reading books they didn’t like. By which I’ve always taken him to mean, ‘books you’d normally avoid’. I’m glad I took that advice because if I hadn’t, I would have missed this little gem.
Sightlines is a collection of essays – some short, some long – about the world around us. Many of them are inspired by trips to the Scottish Hebrides and Orkney Islands, but there are also visits to a Norwegian fjord, a whaling museum in Bergen and, most striking of all, to a pathology laboratory in Dundee.
What she does there encompasses the spirit of the whole book, because she looks – with the aid of the pathologist – at the microscopic details of various human tissues. Healthy tissues, diseased tissues. Some fatal, some benign. As she looks, she encounters a world of life on a scale too small to be seen with the naked eye, but filled with vividly coloured rivers and mountains, valleys and plains. And as she looks, she asks herself, ‘What is it that we’re just not seeing?’
The essays open up and explore sights we might just take for granted if we encountered them on a walk. She asks us to stop and think about what we see. Empty cottages on St Kilda, the remains of a stormy petrel, whale bones displayed in whaling ports. And in describing this world, she also makes us experience it. We feel the bone-chilling cold of the fjord, and the power of a wind so strong it can cancel helicopter flights from deserted islands. We can see the beauty of not just the Northern Lights but also, perhaps surprisingly, the beauty in the pearl-white wing of a dead swan.
The more I think about it, the more I like this book. It’s vivid. It’s tactile. It’s thought-provoking. And it stays in the mind long, long after you finish it.