Emergency by Daisy Hildyard review – a dark pastoral

Humans and ecosystems are intertwined in this meditative, beautifully sustained novel about coming of age in a globalised world

Daisy Hildyard’s first novel, Hunters in the Snow, was lyrical and haunting and brought well-deserved critical success. She followed it with a book of essays on climate change and human relations with plants and animals, The Second Body. In Emergency, Hildyard develops the strengths of her first novel and the concerns of her nonfiction. There isn’t exactly a plot but there are spiralling, intricate meditations on plants, animals, humans and ecosystems, gracefully told through an approximate coming-of-age story set in a village in a nondescript part of northern England.

Emergency begins with the narrator “old enough to be outside and alone”, sitting above a quarry, watching a kestrel and a vole who have not yet seen each other: “We all waited to find out who would move first.” This incident leads to the memory of playing with the children next door; then to a pet rabbit that ate its young (“Even today, she seems to me very human in the way her principles forced her to self-destruct”). We move on to an uneasy relationship with an eccentric elderly neighbour; then back to that moment in the quarry, which produces “gravel that was sent all over the world, the requirements of Norwegian motorways and new cities in China determined the shape of the quarry and the size of the shape it left”. The narrative touches on a neighbour’s work in the local abattoir; watching foxes in the garden at night; the arrival of the first computer in the village primary school, where one of the teachers usually carries bruises and fractures from her husband’s assaults.

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