Book Review || Phosphorescence by Julia Baird

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Julia Baird 23rd March 2020

Oh this book is so beautiful to look at. I really love that the publishers of this one took the title and explored the idea of phosphorescence through lovely application of foiling. Just gorgeous.

The writing inside is, at times, absolutely gorgeous, too. The opening, where Baird talks about cuttlefish, had me absolutely immersed (that may have been an ocean pun) and just feeling light and happy. Throughout the book, examples of phosphorescence are interspersed with the other things Baird talks about, and I found myself looking forward to reading about those parts. This was so so close to something that I would absolutely adore - nonfiction with elements of memoir interspliced with nature writing? That’s pretty much my brand at this point. And yet, it just wasn’t quite there.

There’s a chance that my issues with this book only came up because I read it at a time of upheaval for me - moving house is rough at the best of times, and I wouldn’t call now the ‘best of times’ - so I will just remind everyone that reading experiences are always coloured by personal experience and context. However, there were just a few things that bothered me about this book so I couldn’t love it as much as I wanted to.

First of all, whilst I loved the chapters on beauty and societal expectations of women, I did feel that it was a little surface level, and also just kind of fell into some usual fallbacks - corsets are the devil’s work, for example, and also some frustrating pronouncements about plastic surgery. Occasionally I find myself really drawn in by what Baird was saying, only to be thrown completely back out by a vast generalisation that clearly was based on opinion or extremely general knowledge rather than any sort of research or deeper thought. You could argue that the book was more memoir-based, and thus didn’t need to be researched as much, but I would say that because the book’s subtitle is ‘on awe, wonder, and things that sustain you when the world goes dark’, this was a good opportunity to really delve deep and research everytthing before just throwing it in there. (Also, as far as I could tell, Baird doesn’t have any experience of corsets or plastic surgery, so it felt a little random to make such vast generalisations.)

There was also a little of this sort of feeling with some of the other chapters - it felt like Baird was trying to get really vulnerable, and invite us to be more vulnerable, too, which I absolutely love. In many cases she was completely successful, but then there would just be a random throw-away comment about Taylor Swift or someone that would just ruin it. I wanted more of the vulnerability, less of the random judgement.

Finally, it did feel like this book tries to do too much. Sometimes I had trouble figuring out what the main theme was, and/or how it connected back to phosphorescence. By the end of the book, I had gotten confused a few times about what the book was trying to say. The feeling I was ultimately left with was that this book is a bit of a beautiful mess - sometimes you’re going to feel a little lost, but a lot of it is so luminous and lovely that you don’t really mind, overall.

8/10 colour-changing cuttlefish.

I received a review copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and feelings are my own.

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