4 March 2023

‘Writing the novel felt like following rather than inventing the stories of that place’: Daisy Hildyard on ‘Emergency’

Posted by Daisy Hildyard

Daisy Hildyard’s ​​Emergency, shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, is a pastoral novel for the age of climate catastrophe, dissolving the boundaries of human and animal, local and global. The Rathbones Folio Prize judges called it ‘a profoundly conceived novel that breaches our own myopia’. You can read an extract from the novel here, find out about some of the novel’s literary influences here, and below, read more about the ideas explored in the novel.

One night on the news I saw a story about floods in Zhengzhou, China, in which there was footage of a man fishing in a motorway underpass. He stood on the emptied carriageway in shorts and flipflops, pulling his net from the muddied water that had crept up where the road dipped.

On the same programme there was a special report on a place closer to my home in the north of England. The Barrowcliff housing estate is on the edge of Scarborough, around a mile or so from the seafront. It is in the 1% most deprived areas of England. The report covered a trip to the beach for young people on the estate, organised by a local community centre. Some of the kids, who had lived on Barrowcliff for their whole lives and were now in their early teens, had never been to the sea.

The stories made me feel something that I can’t get at, head on. There is a passage in Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history Chernobyl Prayer which I’ve found myself returning to recently, which has something to do with it.

In an introductory passage, Alexievich describes Chernobyl as belonging to a new era, an era that confounds conventional narratives of history and human life. Chernobyl took place – is still unfolding – across scales that queer and exceed (these are my words) what a human life can apprehend. That is, Chernobyl happens on macro and micro scales: radiation can be visible on micron or planetary scales, and can endure for tens of thousands of years. All this disrupts a regular, human-sized understanding of time and space. Logic, its sense of the world and of how a person lives and moves in it, just can’t accommodate this psychedelic world. Alexievich describes how we find ourselves ‘living in one world, with our minds stuck in another’. The phrase she uses that I return to, in Anna Gunin’s English translation, is, ‘we can’t catch up with reality’.

I feel the lag that Alexievich describes, it drags on much of the fiction that I read, and I also see it in news reports, history books, in everyday conversations, in the justice system, and in my own mind. I saw it in the underpass fisherman and the teenagers who had never been to the beach. I want to catch up, to feel and to convey some sense of the feelings and the facts of experience now.

The book started simply, in the rural north of England, with a village and a wood that I know well. The stories emerged as I traced out connections from there, across scales and differences. Writing the novel felt like following rather than inventing the stories of that place – of a frustrated schoolteacher, an orphaned fox, a broken JCB, a lost child – as a way of imagining myself into a new reality. 


Emergency by Daisy Hildyard (Fitzcarraldo Editions) is shortlisted for the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize. The winner is announced on Monday 27 March at the British Library.

​​Join Daisy Hildyard, alongside the Rathbones Folio Prize judges Ali Smith, Jackie Kay and Guy Gunaratne and a stellar line-up of other shortlistees, at an event at the British Library on Sunday 26 March. Find out more and book tickets here.

Books mentioned in this blog post