Book Review

The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard

we are all connected or are we?

I’m typing this before I go to sleep on my first night in Orzula, a tiny little town (or mid-sized village) on the northern tip of Lanzarote. It is hot in the Airbnb apartment I have hired (though the temperature outside has dropped to about 10 degrees); it’s still comfortably over 20 in here, as it was outside until the sun disappeared from the sky, quite suddenly, at about 6.30/7pm. I recorded an interview for Leo X Robertson‘s podcast Losing The Plot earlier, which was surprisingly intense, as it was basically me discussing my depression and the various ways I’ve been [increasingly successfully] dealing with it recently. As I’m honest and open to a fault, it got very personal. Lol. That, however, was part of my holiday: and so too is reading lots of books, though I will be staggering the (hopefully numerous) posts I write while away in order to get a bit more regular with the content on here again. For a couple of weeks. Or something. Who knows?

Orzula is the quietest Spanish village I have ever been in. I went for a walk at a little after ten and there was nothing going on. About three bars/cafes/restaurants had been open in the afternoon and I’d vaguely planned to take myself out for a beer, but all had gone and there was no sign of them having only just closed. The village echoed with the small noises the handful of other people here were making (a car door slammed by a teenager, a revving car, the click of someone’s lighter) and I made a small circuit of the streets, leaned for a moment overlooking the Atlantic and then returned to my little space, my temporary respite from my homelessness back in London. I returned to my book, yet another Fitzcarraldo Editions publication (yes, I play favourites – next to be reviewed is another Influx book lololol), this time the short non-fiction volume The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard.

This essay is split into four chapters, but is about the idea of the collective soul (I’m being florid there). The second body of the title is the idea of linked humanity: we all possess our own individual bodies, like animals, but outside of that is a second body, one where each of our actions affects events across the planet. It is this second body that is linked by the fossil fuels that are burned to power electricity, by the consequences of cheap, dangerous, labour, by rising sea levels and by animal charities being given more money in the UK than charities for actual people. Hildyard explores animal bodies, individual bodies and collective bodies, focusing chapter by chapter on various topics including attitudes to meat, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Hildyard’s personal experience having her house flooded, the cultural implications of NASA’s Earthrise photographs and many more issues, both digressive and tight on point.

Hildyard’s prose here is uncomplex, despite the difficulty of some of the issues she explores, and as an academic it can on occasion feel like she is self-consciously talking down to an audience she feels isn’t quite as fast as she would like (leading to some almost Partridgesque asides about politeness, being unable to imagine a scientist doing anything other than science and, near the end, the PDA of a nearby couple in a cafe she’s working in (“yes, they’re necking”)). Hildyard’s intelligence, though, is very clear, as too is the deep engagement with which she is hitting her topics.  There are huge amounts of references to literature here, and the text itself is rich with its repeated and consistent metaphor, that of what joins us, what links us. There is humour to be found in the text, as well as tragedy (not just in Hildyard’s personal life, but also the damaging effects of human pollution), and The Second Body feels far more like a text that is aiming to start and build on conversations rather than simply assert a point. Hildyard’s intellect is used engagingly, and she meets with and speaks to many fellow academics, as well as a butcher and his employees, so there is no lack of humanity within the book.

There isn’t really much of a journey, I suppose, through The Second Body, and that probably evidences Hildyard’s academic background more than anything else about the text. It is common for contemporary books like this (and that slides right back past the Geoff Dyers to the Rebecca Wests and DH Lawrences) to have a “false” change somewhere within them. For me, that is the difference between, as people call it, “narrative/creative non-fiction” and more traditional types of “factual” writing, the change, the growth, the “I” making a movement that, whether expected or not, feels like it has grown out of the things the writer has encountered while writing. Hildyard seems to learn and take information from the places and the people she goes to, but they very much all continue to expand and develop her initial premise, one that isn’t doubted and one that is – an idea that all humanity shares a second body – a quite BIG statement to make. I can understand why it isn’t doubted – in order to lend credence to it, in order to make it easier to explain and “prove”, I suppose, but for me The Second Body felt like a casual academic text rather than philosophical literature piece. It’s literary philosophy, is what I mean, rather than philosophical literature, and though I enjoyed it, I felt that there was an edge of reserve to the text, a rigid structural formality, that – though effective – felt perhaps too predictable. When Hildyard’s own personal problems start being explored at the book’s end, they still remain external, rather than internal. Having ones house flooded is very much something that happens to a person, not because of them. I don’t feel that I know Hildyard especially well from having read her words, because I felt that every time the text veered close to the actually personal (i.e. relationships with friends and family) there was a rapid backtracking, and it is how Hildyard responds to the flood in its imminent aftermath that is explored, rather than the repercussions that living with her in-laws for a period (for example) has on her marriage. I don’t know. I think I was just hoping for a different book, maybe.

The Second Body is good, well written and engaging and thought-provoking, but it is not a “personal” text in the way that the essays I LOVE are. This is a book about ideas, rather than about an individual, and while that might be what many other people want, I personally like stepping away from the non-fiction I read feeling like I know the writer better than I know myself. This is a matter of taste, I believe, rather than quality. The Second Body is a good book, it just isn’t about any of my pet topics.

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