October 28, 2011 9:15 pm

On Extinction

Melanie Challenger’s essay ponders the disappearance of industries, cultures and species

Melanie Challenger’s On Extinction ponders the disappearance of industries, cultures and species, and examines our emotional responses to loss. Challenger splits her essay into three “peregrinations”: she wanders the abandoned tin mines of Cornwall, the old whaling outposts of Antarctica, and the Inuit camps of Canada, describing her travels in paragraphs punctuated with eerie photographs of ruin.

Challenger’s employment of these grainy, captionless images, along with her impressively recondite literary references and interest in the workings of collective memory, strongly suggest the saturnine influence of the late German writer WG Sebald – indeed, this book is so thoroughly Sebaldian that it might as well be wearing his trademark tweed.

Unfortunately, Challenger lacks Sebald’s lightness of touch. Her prose is prolix, often lapsing into over-the-top portentousness (“the whole landscape of Cornwall expressed dereliction”) that verges on self-parody.

On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature, by Melanie Challenger, Granta RRP£20, 288 pages

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