By Julian Hoffman
reviewed by Amy Doffegnies
Published by Hamish Hamilton
Julian Hoffman is the writer whose work sold me on writing about place. Reading Hoffman’s first book, The Small Heart of Things (2013), I was enraptured from the start, finding in his work an exquisite exploration of connection - that particular and incorporeal connection that exists between people and place. What I loved especially was the blazing message that this connection has the potential to be radical and transformative. A deep connection with place, Hoffman writes, gives rise to: “a kind of love forged with home that has the potential to be fiercely protective.”
Hoffman’s second and lengthier book, Irreplaceable, came out this year. Through a set of stories centred around individual lives, in locales around the world, Irreplaceable forms an epic account of humans who are profoundly connected to places under threat. Hoffman collects and tells their stories, proving that when stirred by deep connection with the natural world, human beings can take action that is extraordinary. “What matters, as always,” Hoffman writes: “Is the quality of our connections.”
In its eleven chapters, Irreplaceable connects the reader to disparate people, landscapes and creatures in the UK and beyond. Hoffman brings close elements of the natural world that are as various as Britain’s ancient woodlands and Indonesia’s coral reefs, nightingales, vultures and lynxes. These stories, which each unfold in a chapter of their own have in common the theme of ferocious human love, which leads to resistance and faithful work for the protection of the more than human.
In writing this book, the author spent time with schoolteachers and soldiers, subsistence fishermen and café owners in their various places. Hoffman renders people as sensitively as he does place, depicting their “uncomplicated wonder” at the natural world often through excerpts from their speech. Further, the author’s own depictions of his surroundings are spellbinding. One of the most memorable scenes of the book is visited upon both at the start and the end, where Hoffman describes a symbolic murmuration of starlings, which people look on at with awe: “the magic of their kind so close and living alongside us.”
Alongside magical and intricate detail, the book is saturated with essential and uncomfortable truths about the ways we are losing the irreplaceable. Favouring vivid human stories over statistics, Hoffman describes how for the people he spoke with, loss of the natural world: “was neither abstract nor actuarial; it was real, visceral and imminent.”
The book speaks to the most momentous questions of our time – questions of loss on a mass scale and human responses in the face of that loss. These questions are unavoidably difficult, and political, but Hoffman’s language of resistance is beautiful as it is necessary. He etches out the contours of fields and allotments and fenlands, as much as the various colours of hearts stubbornly tied to their protection.
At the book’s beginning, Hoffman quotes the American poet Wendell Berry: “Maybe the answer is to fight always for what you particularly love, not for abstraction and not against anything.” I would recommend this book wholeheartedly, especially for anyone who is interested in the fight for, the irreplaceable.
About the author
Julian is the author of The Small Heart of Things, which won the 2012 AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction and the National Outdoor Book Award for Natural History Literature. He was also the winner of the Terrain.org Nonfiction Prize and has written for EarthLines, Kyoto Journal, Beloit Fiction Journal, Briar Cliff Review, Flyway, Redwood Coast Review, Silk Road Review and Southern Humanities Review, amongst others. He lives in north-western Greece.
About the reviewer
Amy Doffegnies is a Researcher, Writer and Poet and is Kendal Mountain Literature Festival’s Blogger in Residence. She has a PhD from the University of New South Wales, Canberra, which focused on issues of human rights and religion in South-East Asia. Having written on freedom of expression and writers in Burma/Myanmar, since returning home to Cumbria in 2018, she has developed keen interests in contemporary nature writing in the UK and beyond. Alongside writing, she loves walking in the hills and is enjoying re-exploring the Lakeland fells.