'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.