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The Night Field cover

The Night Field by Donna Glee Williams

(Jo Fletcher Books, 2023)

Reviewed by Harry Slater

The climate fable is becoming a staple of modern SF. It avoids the rigour of hard cli-fi, throwing a catastrophe into the heart of some prelapsarian innocence, the sludge of reality coating a purer, more natural existence. The Night Field by Donna Glee Williams follows that template, and while it is a moving, often heartbreaking novel, there’s a simplicity to its message that undermines its good intentions. The book tells the story of Pyn-Poi, a young woman who has spent all her time in a forest she knows as The Real. Every year, when the rain comes, Pyn-Poi and her family head up onto shelves in a massive cliff, known as the Wall, to wait out the deluge, before returning to once again connect with the flora and fauna below. But a change happens, a putrid stench that comes with the rain and begins to make the inhabitants of the forest, and the plants themselves, sick.

The world that Pyn-Poi inhabits is a richly imagined one, with a matriarchal structure and a well-defined set of rituals. She is expected to become the next clan mother, but her heart is with the trees, and her father, Sook-Sook. When the stink arrives, she takes it upon herself to climb up the Wall, to the mythical land of the Ancestors above, to figure out why her people are being punished. The narrative wraps around itself, half set in a prison farm where Pyn-Poi ends up, the rest telling the story of how she got there. The journey involves a stay at a brothel, a run-in with cannibals and an attack by a bird, all of it seen through Pyn-Poi’s eyes. It’s an interesting perspective and allows us to look at the grey reality of the world above with na├»ve eyes; it’s a grim place, full of abuse and exploitation, much of which Pyn-Poi has no concept of. At the farm, Pyn-Poi meets a group of women forced into labour to pay off their crimes, and in doing so discovers the source of the poison that is killing her world. Perhaps the most interesting relationship in the book is between Pyn-Poi and the trees, who she can talk to using her Other form, a kind of spectral self that her father taught her to project. The trees act as guides, of a sort, and some of the most intriguing ideas in The Night Field involve the difficulty in translating knowledge from root to human mind. There are some difficult moments in the story, mostly involving imprisonment, and it isn’t afraid to confront imbalanced power structures that reflect those in our own world.

While there’s plenty of darkness here, The Night Field is essentially a hopeful story, about the difference a single, determined human can make. But that’s where the book’s biggest flaw lies; it all feels a little too simple. It acknowledges the immense difficulties of confronting a deeply rooted system of human and natural abuses but scatters a little magic over them to try and show that there’s the possibility for a positive outcome. While it makes for a rousing story, one that I’m not ashamed to say made me cry in places, something about it rings a little hollow. Ecological crises are deeply layered, heavily political and historical, and although a return to a more natural way of life can form part of the solution to them, here the weight of responsibility for that change is placed firmly on the shoulders of Pyn-Poi, a member of an indigenous, magically imbued tribe. There are shades of James Cameron’s Avatar here, with the suggestion that only through the eyes of an oppressed minority are we able to understand the damage we’ve done to the world. As a fable, The Night Field is charming, engaging, and well-written, and there are points where your heart will be in your mouth. But a deeper critique exposes a softness to the work that means it lacks the punch to actually say anything, beyond a slightly uncomfortable repetition of colonial tropes.

Review from BSFA Review 23 - Download your copy here.


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