Writer Paul Kingsnorth is a man in search of a place, a sense of belonging. Having moved from the United Kingdom to Ireland with his wife and two children several years prior in hopes of being able to find just that in a far more rustic setting, Kingsnorth begins to think that he may perhaps never find his place and that, as society moves farther and farther away from our indigenous roots, we will all likely follow suit. Much of this, he concludes, can be blamed on “the Machine,” the great wheel of social expectations that cause us to constantly seek the next level of success, happiness, financial reward and interpersonal connections.

But this isn’t the only thing troubling Kingsnorth in Savage Gods, a sort of real-time, stream-of-consciousness tome that explores the aforementioned themes along with other existential crises, including reconciling his current self with his admittedly more ambitious, environmentally and politically motivated younger self. This former iteration of Kingsnorth co-founded the politically minded Dark Mountain Project, as well as served as deputy editor of the British environmental journal The Ecologist. All of this came before the publication of his first novel, The Wake, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, with film rights having also been sold.

Now, half a decade removed, he finds himself questioning what it all means, the validity of that which he has to say and, on a more fundamental level, the words themselves. This proves most troubling for Kingsnorth as he grapples with the literal and figurative weight of words and how they can make or break him as a writer of fiction. We join him seemingly midway through his latest novel (which, spoiler alert, appears to be coming out at the end of this year) struggling to find meaning in his work and unable to write anything of substance.

Yet, with the work contained within Savage Gods, he finds that, even in the midst of a sort of writer’s block (or perhaps “writer’s ennui” would be a more apt phrase), he can continue to string words together to form sentences detailing his concern regarding the meaning or validity of the words themselves and the impact they have on his life and the lives of others. In this, he shows that writers will always write, even when they’ve no idea what they intend to write about, making Savage Gods a glimpse into the creative process delivered essentially in real time as Kingsnorth reckons with his writerly existential dilemmas.

Chief among these is Kingsnorth’s constant searching for a place from which he can claim to originate. He talks of indigenous tribes who live their entire lives in one place and develop an almost spiritual rapport with the world through which they move, a magical connection he likens to his children’s ability to spend hours in the forest talking with the birds and trees. In essence, his identity as he has come to perceive it has been wholly shaped by modernity and “the Machine” that bends and shapes all of us into barely shadows of the humans we were even a hundred years ago. The idea of taking pride in one’s home, with it being seen as something of great value to be passed on through generations, claims his thoughts in his quiet Irish countryside home as he begins farming and attempting to begin a self-subsistence-based existence. The loss of our indigenous ways has caused this idea to all but disappear in modern society, our focus instead on the idea of upward mobility and striving for the next rung on the social ladder (either through career, home, financial status, etc.).

Thus, he embarks on his search for contentment in a new, rural environment, far removed from the urban setting in which he was essentially created. But his having moved a number of times in his formative years has left him feeling rootless and without a home proper. Hoping to establish one for himself with his wife and children in Ireland, he lands on the age-old problem of not being able to ever truly outrun one’s problems due to their existing almost exclusively within one’s own mind. As a writer, Kingsnorth is the first to admit spending the vast majority of his life within his own analytical, philosophical head and, because of this, failing to make a connection with the here and now in a way the various tribes and indigenous cultures in which he has spent time have managed. It’s a troubling realization as he puts stock in the idea of the words coming through the writer are from the place in which the writer is grounded. His groundlessness, in essence, makes his words not only without place, but theoretically without merit.

This becomes the crux of the book, Kingsnorth struggling to reconcile the validity of his own work, something that exists almost exclusively within his own mind and the minds of those who tackle Kingsnorth’s work. He compares himself to a friend who gave up a career within a scientific field for one in which he makes ornate baskets and other physical manifestations of his creativity, things that can be objectively appreciated on their own without need for any sort of further explanation or discussion. Coupling this with the idea of the first half of one’s life being like fire in its ability to both burn brightly and ascend versus the second half in which water becomes the representative element, pulling the individual back to earth, finds Kingsnorth searching for some semblance of grounding in both his personal and professional life.

Savage Gods is the kind of book one can return to time and again at varying points in one’s life and glean something different each time. Kingsnorth is such a fantastically gifted writer and thinker that an encounter with Savage Gods is liable to push the reader (assuming they, too, are a writer) to greater heights, capturing the essence of the rising flame before the inevitable water droplets return to earth.

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