Ash before Oak by Jeremy Cooper

Fitzcarraldo Editions, April 2019, 532 pp

Fitzcarraldo Editions, April 2019, 532 pp

Jeremy Cooper’s Ash before Oak consists of hundreds of short diary entries, in which the narrator recounts what he sees around him in nature while living secluded in Somerset countryside in the early 2000s. Writing is mainly a therapeutic tool for him, an attempt to cope with his increasingly and alarmingly serious depression. He is, in fact, very aware of what he’s writing and is often self-degrading whenever he catches himself trying to write poetically and not truthfully about his surroundings:

10 August
With neat observations I make myself seem rational and urbane.

Far from true.

I’m vulnerable, sinking several times each day into sharp anxiety. Threatened by the tiny everyday.

Can’t begin to write what it actually feels like – even writing that I can’t do so is soberly expressed, declining the desperation that washes through me.

This honesty and the unpolished prose (with several “errors” in grammar and whatnot) brings about a rather touching and striking narrative, a distinctive style that is effective because it’s so realistic.

Another aspect I really liked here was tracking down the passing of time. The narrator writes on an almost daily basis, but occasionally there are long gaps in the entries, which fed my imagination just the right way as I started to speculate what was going on in the silence of these unwritten periods. Some of these silences are very effective plot-wise, when we hear only later what drastic events have occurred meanwhile. 

It is a long, repetitive novel, mostly in good, but somewhere around the 400-page mark I did experience some fatigue. I think it is essentially a novel to be read in small chunks; otherwise the short entries won’t make an impact. It is, after all, an almost day-to-day journal, and flipping through somebody else’s life too fast makes no sense really. I would also like to stress, like I almost always do with Fitzcarraldo novels, that don’t be daunted by the number of pages: there is a lot of white space in the book as new entries always start on a new page and most entries are just a few sentences long. 

Somewhere in the 3.5 – 4 star territory for me. Certainly an interesting addition to Fitzcarraldo’s nature-themed spring catalogue together with Animalia by Jean-Baptiste del Amo (my favorite book of 2019 so far) and Surrender by Joanna Pocock (on my to-read list).