Going Nuclear: Philippa Holloway discusses her debut novel, The Half-life of Snails
As both a writer and a PhD graduate who studied nuclear psychogeography, Philippa Holloway fuses fact with fiction in her debut novel, The Half-life of Snails to tell a story of familial conflict perpetuated by the promise and destruction that the nuclear power industry holds.
Holloway’s unique affiliation with the subject allows her to discuss some of its darkest topics with sincerity, including the author’s experience within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and explains how this helped her come to terms with ‘the human bond with the landscapes that make us who we are’.
It was, in fact, the Chernobyl disaster, of seeing the exploded reactor on her TV screen no less, that Holloway recalls as being one of her earliest memories. Though, it was not until she was invited to teach a course at Wylfa, the site of two 490 MW nuclear reactors off the north-western coast of Wales, that the significance of these colossal machines became palpable.
Therefore, to nurse these anxieties and figure out why people respond in such a way to the manufacture of nuclear power stations, particularly ‘how their emotions and behaviours [are] informed by them’, she turned to the study of psychogeography, and then to writing for solace:
“The interesting thing about applying [psychogeography] to nuclear spaces is that radiation cannot be sensed without a mediating device like a dosimeter, and so there are complications to untangle in terms of how these landscapes are perceived. A challenge! Fiction is the perfect place to test out and question ideas and these complex responses. It allowed me to step outside of my own experience and explore, though multiple characters, the nuances of emplaced and embodied experiences of nuclear landscapes.”
Her novel, hence, becomes a sort of investigative piece, with Holloway deciding to concentrate on the parallels between two very different landscapes, but with one thing in common – that the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and Wylfa on the coast of Anglesey are both sites of nuclear power.
Not only this, but crucially, they are both landscapes ‘defined by the power stations’ as Holloway illustrates in her novel, although, it seems that the author’s aim is to look beyond what has been placed upon the environment, making a key theme in her story ‘this connection to, and exclusion from, specific areas’.
Aptly, Holloway cleverly sets her story amidst the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution of 2014 to further exemplify this notion of contested borders and unsettled boundaries throughout her book.
Considering that this historic revolution aimed to eradicate President Yanukovych because the Ukrainian people refuted his efforts to create closer political ties with Russia instead of the EU, this setting does not just resonate with the book’s overarching theme, but also with the intense political climate of Ukraine presently. Holloway confesses that ‘the novel was finished long before the 2022 war in Ukraine’, signing the deal with Parthian in 2020, but that ‘its current relevance is absolutely heart-breaking’.
Liminality and hiraeth
Considering that specific geographic and cultural spaces seem to be contemplated heavily throughout The Half-life of Snails, the discussion of place in relation to the self cannot be neglected.
When I asked the author about this, Holloway admitted that she herself experienced an immense sense of liminality and ‘hiraeth’ after moving away from Wales to England for her PhD, and that she is ‘horribly aware of how displacement can disrupt a sense of self’.
Nevertheless, her suffering was not in vain because she was able to apply her experience with displacement to her writing, thus capturing this element of her narrative superbly.
Specifically, Holloway noted that her time spent with the Samosely – people that were evacuated from their homes during the Chernobyl disaster but then returned illegally to what is now named the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – helped her come to terms with ‘that deep connection between people and place’.
The fact that the Samosely refused to abandon their homes, despite the threat that the landscape still possesses, suggests that the connection between the self and place is stronger than fear – perhaps even stronger than the ultimate fear for some, of death itself.
The concept of place and identity is specifically intertwined with the natural landscape, as you will find within the pages of Holloway’s novel, with nature being centred almost immediately both in the description of the landscape and the characters.
The human condition
Of course, ‘nature as a theme was inevitable for this novel’ as Holloway spent most of her adult life as a writer in Wales, where the natural world is in abundance, observing the interactions between people and place – it is a landscape that she knows ‘intimately’.
However, she is also more than familiar with the spaces that nuclear power plants occupy and thus, the natural and the manufactured converge as such:
“This book explores the way nuclear power stations affect communities and individuals, though, and as they are usually sited in rural areas, often by the coast or lakes, the juxtaposition between industrial and natural was a specific focus for the story. I wanted to explore how people are connected to the nuanced and often conflicting aspects of their local landscapes, the sensual and emotional elements of that connection, and the symbiosis of identity and place.”
The intrusion of human-implemented structures on the natural landscape – which is especially exhibited by the inclusion of the Wylfa power plant in the narrative – is a motif often explored in Welsh writing because Wales has historically suffered an involuntary loss of the natural landscape.
Holloway takes this motif and implements it into a contemporary narrative to allow the art of storytelling to, as she has described, access complex ideas and emotions about nuclear psychogeography that are otherwise occluded.
What Holloway wants to demonstrate in her debut is that it is not just the nuclear disaster itself that should be centred, but that ‘the trauma and pain of those […] displaced by the nuclear industry’ must be accounted for too.
Because of the emphasis that this author puts on the significance of place in relation to the self when talking about the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone or the nuclear power plant in Anglesey, the human condition is always at the core of the narrative.
And so is truth for that matter – with the author’s own sentimental and academic experience of the topics she writes about permeating the conception of the book, The Half-life of Snails will not fail to resonate with anyone who has ever had a place to call home.
Holly Porter is a writer and journalist Twitter @_hollyporterr
Philippa Holloway is a writer and senior lecturer at Staffordshire University, living in England but with her heart still at home in Wales. Her short fiction is published on four continents. She has won prizes in literary awards including the Fish Publishing Prize, The Scythe Prize, and the Writers & Artists Working Class Writer’s Prize. She is co-editor of the collection 100 Words of Solitude: Global Voices in Lockdown 2020 (Rare Swan Press). Twitter: @thejackdawspen
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