Review of ‘Underland: A Deep Time Journey’ by Robert Macfarlane

What an extraordinary book this is. I haven’t read anything like it before. I do have mixed feelings about the writing style but I can understand why the book has won or been shortlisted for several awards.

The theme of the book is the wonder and horror of what’s underground and how this connects with how humans, with their comparatively short lifespans, make sense of deep time – thousands and millions of years behind us and ahead of us. The content is mainly the author’s thoughts and descriptions of his experiences going to places which best fit this theme. These places include Epping Forest (where he meets up with Melvin Sheldrake of fungi fame), the Paris Catacombs, the Mendips, remote caves at Lofoten and a nuclear waste repository in Finland. The latter introduced me to the field of nuclear semiotics, which I didn’t know existed – the problem of communicating to civilisations and species of the far future the dangers of excavating our nuclear waste.

Quite a few of the author’s adventures are dangerous. Many times he was descending into a sinkhole or tunnel via a rusted ladder, or inching along a low tunnel on his back, or picking his way over a snowy mountain and it could have gone wrong. With all this adventuring, I do wonder how he found the time to observe everything so closely and write it up. The content was fascinating though.

I realise that the writing style is what makes the book stand out. It’s in the present tense, very wordy and self-consciously trying to find as many different ways to describe things as possible, like poetry. While there are some beautiful moments, the relentless lyrical tone does get wearying. The book is also too long, so it begins to seem repetitive. There are disappointingly few images included; just one at the beginning of each chapter. The writing is so descriptive that I suppose more images were considered unnecessary, but all the same, I would have appreciated them.

If you’re interested in what’s underground – both the amazing and the terrible – and you can tolerate a poetic writing style packed full of literary references, from which it’s sometimes hard to work out what’s happening to the author on his adventures (I had to re-read paragraphs often), then this is one for you.

First published in 2019.

4 thoughts on “Review of ‘Underland: A Deep Time Journey’ by Robert Macfarlane”

  1. I’m so happy to see this review of yours–as I always trust your thoughtful reviews. That book was on my list, because it was so lauded, but I knew it’d be a real investment of time. Might read the start of it sometime to see if I can take it. I generally like a lyrical style, but maybe not in a doorstopper!

    1. You’re welcome! Great to hear you trust my reviews ☺ I think you’ll like the style of this book. Perhaps it shouldn’t be read continuously like a novel, but a chapter sometimes when you’re in the mood for it.

  2. This sounds so good at the start of the review, until you mentioned it being long, repetitive and its writing style and lack of pictures…How many pages is this? I’m assuming at least 500?

    1. Hi Jee, I don’t know how many pages (and it might be different depending on your device and settings, I read a library ebook) but I would say too many. The concept and locations, I really liked. The style just wasn’t for me, although beautiful at times.

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