It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about anything for this site. I’ve a lot of ground to cover. With such a backlog of bookish thoughts to share, I could at this point wax lyrical about Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss, but Kate @ Booksaremyavouriteandbest has already done it and far better than I can. I could offer a luke-warm appraisal of The Dictionary of Lost Words, but I’ve decided I’m no longer up for reviewing books that I didn’t love. I could sing with excitement about Richard Flanagan’s new book The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, but he has the whole Penguin Random House orchestra behind him and doesn’t need me to add to the chorus.
So instead, I’m offering up a delightful book called The Way Through The Woods by Long Lit Woon (translated from Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland).
I heard about this book during our first lockdown, thanks to the sterling work of our local librarians who, committed to their largely unrecognised role as community superglue, kept our spirits up with videos and reviews and photos of baby chicks. The Way Through The Woods featured in one of their reviews.
The books starts with the revelation that Woon’s husband of 32 years went to work one day and never came home — he died suddenly, leaving her to manage her infinite grief. It’s a scenario that can only make us shudder.
And yet, from this starting point, Woon carves out a book that surprises and delights. It’s a narrative of journeying through grief and arriving at an awakening. We follow her from her enrolment in a beginner’s course in mushrooms, which she originally intended to do with her husband, to her passing the mushroom inspectors exam run by the Norwegian Mycological Association.
As she says:
My discovery of the realm of fungi steadily nudged me out of the tunnel of grief … Only later did it dawn on me that mushrooms had been my rescue in my hour of need, and that seemingly unrelated subjects such as mushrooms and mourning can, in fact, be connected.
While her grief is the backdrop, it absolutely doesn’t dominate because despite being a memoir, Long herself doesn’t take centre stage, mushrooms do. She opens up the fascinating world of fungi in an accessible and thought-provoking way. For instance, she illustrates how different countries prize different mushrooms, indicating the extent to which taste is culturally determined as is, it appears, whether a mushroom is deemed toxic or not. She gently paints a portrait of the average mushroom hunter — namely they’re very, very secretive about their favourite hunting grounds. And all of this is wrapped up in playful observations.
I’ve asked myself whether you need to love fungi to enjoy this book. I don’t think you need to be a mycophile, but equally, you really don’t want to be a mycophobe. Some interest in mushrooms and a little bit of awe about this incredibly complex part of nature will be enough to keep you reading. It’s a simple and gentle book and therefore a wonderful antidote for 2020.