'you could think Joanna Kavenna had written a campus satire'by Peter Robins / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
A Field Guide to Reality
by Joanna Kavenna (Faber & Faber, £14.99)
In an Oxford that is not quite the one we know, an elderly, widowed professor from a college that is not quite Magdalen befriends a waitress in the café of a museum that is not quite the Ashmolean. They talk about grief—she too is in mourning, for her father—and his life’s work, a book that he semi-seriously calls A Field Guide to Reality. When the professor, Solete, dies, the closest thing he leaves to a manuscript is a box inscribed to the waitress, Eliade Jencks, and she finds herself set on a quest through the groves of academe in search of the missing masterpiece.
Put it that way and you could think Joanna Kavenna had written a campus satire. Parts of her Field Guide are indeed very funny about scholarly monomania. (“It is a shame that the earth is not precisely a pinecone,” one collaborator of Solete’s declares, “as this would explain a great deal.”) But this is something altogether more particular. The narrative wanders between daily life, hallucinations and dreams, between Eliade’s attractively dry first-person voice and third-person historical flashbacks that merge freely into her dreamscape. Misty illustrations by Oly Ralfe weave in and out of the text.
The register, too, shifts, from sharply quotidian (Eliade is great on snobbery and café life) to the fabular (her sequence of encounters made me think, increasingly, of George Bernard Shaw’s The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God). This reader, at least, was left a little like Eliade after her most psychedelic episode: dazzled, even awed at times, but some way from enlightenment. Peter Robins…