Book review: Thunderstone, by Nancy Campbell

This raw, honest account of semi-urban caravan life offers a valuable lesson in how to find beauty and wonder even in the most trying of circumstances, writes Roger Cox

Nancy Campbell PIC: Annie Schlechter
Nancy Campbell PIC: Annie Schlechter

The pandemic and its associated lockdowns damaged so many lives in so many ways that it's easy to become numb to all the myriad tales of suffering. Every now and then, however, you come across one story from the last couple of years that stands out as uniquely awful.

In the autumn of 2019, the poet and author Nancy Campbell was part-way through a fellowship at the Internationales Kunstlerhaus in Bamberg, Germany. One evening, after a party during which she had made excuses for the absence of her partner, Anna, "that did not even convince me as I uttered them", she decided that, on her return to Oxford, she and Anna would have to discuss "The Future, which might mean Separating." Later that night, however, she received a phone call: Anna had had a stroke, and was in hospital. She had lost the use of her right arm, and was suffering from "very severe aphasia." Clearly the big talk would have to wait.

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Eventually, with Anna's rehab progressing agonisingly slowly, the Big Talk does happen, but the pair decide to remain together for a year to facilitate her recovery. Life, when they return to their tiny basement flat, is predictably grim ("when someone is crying in another room, you only hear the middle pitch of the agony"). In her confused state, Anna puts pizzas in the oven still in their boxes, pulls up plants in the garden she believes to be weeds and sets the bedroom curtains on fire. Then their flat is flooded with raw sewage – and then the pandemic arrives. "All outpatient therapies were written off, and [Anna's] support worker was not permitted to visit. The Stroke Association hotline was silent. After living on the ward for months, she was suddenly alone. We were suddenly alone."

Thunderstone, by Nancy Campbell
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No doubt the story of how the pair survived lockdown could run to several books, but here it is presented only fleetingly "I dream the world has been taken over by a pandemic. The fact of living through a pandemic seems so implausible that I disbelieve the dream even as I dream it." Thunderstone is about what happened to Campbell once she emerged from lockdown in the summer of 2021, left the flat she shared with Anna, once it was safe to do so, and set up a new home in an old caravan beside some woods, a canal and a railway line, on the outskirts of the city.

In a sense, then, Campbell is a contemporary Thoreau, although hers is an oddly post-industrial Walden, soundtracked by both birdsong and passing freight trains. Her new, largely solitary life is a struggle, both in terms of making the caravan habitable and in terms of her own health issues, but she is wonderfully alert to every nuance of every experience, and writes with joyous precision about the summer she sees unfolding all around her. Not an easy read, by any means, but a valuable lesson in how to find beauty and wonder, even in the most trying of circumstances.

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Thunderstone, by Nancy Campbell, Elliott & Thompson, £14.99. Nancy Campbell is at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 17 August