Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth – book review.

Although Savage Gods is Paul Kingsnorth’s latest book, it has been around for a while having been published in late 2019 – just before the entire world went “Covid crazy”.

It is one of two books that I eventually decided on, as late Christmas presents for myself, after my wife suggested I spend $50, or there about, on something for myself for Christmas.

In Kingsnorth’s own words – “Savage Gods is a confessional: a short, sharp, unexpected account of a crisis in my own writing, in my sense of purpose and my sense of home. It is an examination, from within the moment, of what it means to lose faith in words. In the process, it asks: what is the meaning of language and what is it for? Does writing illuminate or conceal? And can a human ever really ‘belong’ to a place in a broken world which militates against it?

I started reading this book just before bedtime and got a third of the way through it before turning in for bed and then being unable to sleep because my mind was still processing and turning over and over what I had been reading. The following day I knew I had to finish it for my own peace of mind – which is what I did.

Some parts of the book, detailing his move from suburban living in a small Cumbrian market town to his new life in rural western Ireland – apparently just inside what is classed as the romantic bit – is fairly straightforward, clear and informative. It details the move and what his and his family’s new life, working the land and being as gentle on the environment as they can, without being completely off grid, is like. This is their attempt to escape from the all consuming “Machine”. This writing is what I bought the book for, to find out all about his transition from urbanite to part time farmer, working the land.

Other parts of the book concerning his writing and his apparent…..his apparent what exactly? His apparent – one could describe it as his falling out with words or his lack of trust in words….those black markings on a white page. And his inner conflict and lack of self belief, or lack of belief in his ability to write any more, or even if he should write at all in the future – which in my opinion is unjustified because I hold the guy in such high regard – I found quite disturbing.

At times, in this book, he writes as though he is coming apart. Having some kind of breakdown due to his mistrust of words. His lack of belief in his craft, his art.

He talks about writing as a sacrifice, or I should say in his quest to write and to be a writer, to be able to fully immerse himself in the world of words and sentences, he sacrifices everything else in his life. Writing comes first even before family. He chastises himself when he puts his “job” above spending more time with his children because he wants to be remembered by his kids as a good father, but it’s what he, as a writer, is driven to do. It’s his cross and he has to bear it.

It is also about belonging or not belonging to a place and whether or not it’s possible to become at home and at ease in that place. This is not something that Kingsnorth is comfortable about doing. It disturbs him when he starts to feel “at home” in a particular place, because it is alien to him. His lifestyle as a writer, has lead him to be a wanderer – not entirely nomadic – not on the move the whole time, but to move from place to place after a few short years without experiencing the feeling of becoming settled, of feeling “at home”.

But now in Ireland, living the rural idyll and reaching his mid 40’s, he is coming to the conclusion that it’s actually OK to feel at home in a place, to finally put down roots and to learn how to belong.

He thinks that perhaps the planting of hundreds of trees on his property by himself and his wife has helped him to begin to accept the act of putting down his own roots as a natural and normal thing to do. Something he has been both searching for, and at the same time avoiding, all his life.

I have, in the few years that I have been aware of Kingsnorth and his work, always been absolutely sure of his ability as a writer, a communicator and a great thinker. The latter is a title that many people give Kingsnorth and one that he seems to be the least comfortable with. (And there’s that word again – comfortable – something else that doesn’t sit well with Kingsnorth). To see his lack of belief in words and in writing and therefore lack of belief in his singular purpose in life – to be a writer. To expose his vulnerability in this way – and in the process, to expose the raw nerves of his relationship with his father – was both refreshing and deeply disturbing – and made me question my own life, my purpose and where, if anywhere, I belong. (please see my previous blog post)

I can’t say that I “enjoyed” reading this book, but I did find it almost impossible to put down. Once started I had to finish it. It is compelling reading, certainly a must read for anyone contemplating writing as a career…..or a calling. Some writers write because they want to. Kingsnorth writes because he has to. It is his very reason for being. He gets little choice in the matter.

I rate the book highly and am now eager to start reading the other book that made up my late Christmas gift…..another Kingsnorth offering. This time it’s his 2009 homage to his homeland called Real England – Part personal journey, part manifesto, Real England offers a snapshot of a country at a precarious moment in its history, while there is still time to save its future.

Once more, many thanks for reading this. I welcome comments, positive or negative, as long as they are constructive.

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