Lockdown wasn’t easy for most people, but Nancy Campbell left her home and relocated to a caravan on the outskirts of Oxford. This may sound idyllic, but Campbell’s account of her summer back in 2020 reflects the stark reality of the situation, right down to the inconveniences of a dodgy water heater and consequent cold showers. Taking on a strip of neglected woodland and clearing the industrial detritus from the ground is a perfect metaphor for the cathartic procedure of starting again.
Previous publications were set-in far-flung places, The Library of Ice and Fifty Words for Snow, but Thunderstone is set within the confines of our pandemic world. Van life could be viewed as a project in minimalism, it pushes Campbell to assess everything in a different light. There is a pervading practicality in her words and actions. In the early chapters she receives a food parcel, a vast array of gastronomic delights, enough to give Nigella a bad dose of larder envy. Juxtaposing this list of cordon bleu ingredients, Campbell forages for food, cooks slap-up bowls of borscht for her visitors and feasts on sardines on toast. These mundane tasks, cooking and cleaning and tending the garden are relatable features of life during lockdown. However, Campbell has to adapt and find new ways to function within the smallness of her home and the newness of her situation.
Life in the van obviously provides moments of solitude and isolation, a chance to reflect on the past and rebuild a future. Diary extracts are carefully crafted explanations of day-to-day life, pages sparkle with little gems about nature and the environment, snippets of folklore and history as well as quotes and insightful reflections. This ability to segue from the everyday into the extraordinary is Campbell’s gift, some observations left me contemplating layers of meaning for hours after.
Occasional entries are short and terse, a snippet of poetry or a remark that reflects a mood, an indirect hint at her state of mind during the process. There are deeply personal challenges, dealing with her ex-partner’s rehabilitation after a stroke, which edges the narrative with questions of obligation and self-doubt. As if that isn’t enough, a trip to the doctor proffers the worst possible news.
This is a depiction of life ‘off-grid’ but it highlights the profound value of interaction with others, and Campbell offers a cast of believable and interesting characters that spice up the solitary stew. Moments of quiet desperation are met with snippets of advice from well-meaning people and sharp quips from ‘Sven’ and ‘the assassin’. Members of the canal boat community welcome her with open arms, herbal teas and practical gifts like a heavy torch to scare off potential muggers.
Campbell’s lockdown diary turns away from the experience of solitude and offers a broader appreciation of community. Faced with the inevitable proximity of life, even when you are trying to escape it, this book is written with intimate honesty and offers a clear, authentic voice during her own time of deep uncertainty and transformation.
- Thunderstone by Nancy Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson (£14.99). To order a copy go to eandtbooks.com
Emma Russell is a teacher and freelance writer currently based in Somerset. Fortunate to have lived and worked in different countries, Emma is fascinated by foreign cultures, from culinary delicacies to storytelling and obscure traditions. Current hobbies include making miniatures, word related puzzles, escape rooms and blogging about books. Emma is currently completing an MA in Travel and Nature writing at Bath Spa University.