Sunday 14 January 2024

Review by Kathy Hoyle of "These Envoys of Beauty" by Anna Vaught

These Envoys of Beauty is a stunning memoir in which Anna Vaught’s prose sparkles with detailed observations of the natural world, contrasting sharply with a deep-rooted emotional response to childhood trauma. "When I was very young, and would run out or just stand and stare, I would look to plants and trees to help me explain to myself a bewildering world."

Structured as twelve separate essays, this memoir is journey of learning and discovery for both the writer and the reader. Vaught shares her vast knowledge of the natural world throughout, and by structuring the work in this way, the memoir becomes all the more manageable for the reader, especially when we must also traverse the deep, emotional revelations in each section. In the pause between each essay, we are able to breathe, process and decompress before beginning again, entering into the next deeply absorbing experience. And have no doubt, each essay is a completely immersive experience, exhilarating yet emotionally arduous in equal measure, a vivid sensory delight, juxtaposed with the trauma discussed. Vaught protects her reader wisely: much is implied throughout,  and though Vaught writes with vital honesty, she is never brutal. 

In her opening essay, Vaught declares, "My mother said mental health problems were an indulgence," and each essay delves further into a child’s journey through a world of shadows and unspoken truths, a world of fear and shame, where a girl is made to feel as though she is nothing but a "sufferance."  But this is also the story of a child who is curious, and despite her harsh reality, she finds beauty in the natural world around her, in the landscapes and seascapes, in dens and hollows, caves and cliffsides, in the trees and flowers, the roaring weirs and crashing waves. The child deftly slips between reality and imagination, between nature and dreams. 

This memoir embraces the wildness of nature and its cyclical patterns, and the writer truly finds comfort in the both the darkness and the light that nature provides: "One of my favourite things to this day is the nimbostratus, whose effect you feel and see: imagine the sun on your skin and light illuminating the sand. Then darkness and everything changes colour. This sudden shift is a moment of ecstasy for me in its drama. I also like sudden, powerful belts of rain, never more so than when I am by the sea. Standing in the water while being pelted – assuming you are not too cold – brings me to myself."

Despite the terrible echoes of Vaught’s past running through this memoir, there is also hope and a certain defiance in the writing which I found hugely admirable: "Epilobium angustifolium. My maternal grandmother called it fireweed, and my father said you could not kill it – which was exactly what I liked about it. It thrived."

In this examination of her "self" and her childhood memories, Vaught brings great comfort and hope to others with her resilience. I cried often when reading the essays, but I smiled too, at the beauty of them, at the hope within them. I wanted to champion the curious little girl Vaught once was, stroke her hair and lay in a meadow with her as the clouds scud above us and tell her that, one day, she will be okay. But I sense that Vaught is already one step ahead of me. In writing these essays, Vaught has reclaimed both her "self" and her power, and with her ongoing connection to the natural world, she has fashioned a protective shield. I love how Vaught has defiantly built new associations with natural world, casting off many of her childhood fears and associations, as she moves through adulthood, creating newer, safer memories: "But here was determination, and I wonder if it is strongest in those who are repeatedly told they should not survive or deserve to, who are told it would have been better if they had not been born."

I found These Envoys of Beauty such a beautiful and deeply moving memoir. It is one which will stay with me for a very long time. 

About the reviewer
Kathy Hoyle is a working-class writer of short fiction. Her stories have appeared in various literary magazines including Northern Gravy, Lunate, Ellipsiszine, Fictive Dream and The Forge. She is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She lives in a sleepy Warwickshire village and when she's not writing, she enjoys singing Dolly Parton songs to her long-suffering labradoodle, Eddie. 

You can read more about These Envoys of Beauty by Anna Vaught on Creative Writing at Leicester here

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