Reviewed by Nick Rees Gardner
A quiet and cerebral meditation on art and landscape, Hiking Underground explores the subtle ways in which the natural world can offer new perspectives and give our lives new meaning.
In this short novel, Amy Smiley depicts a nontraditional New York City experienced primarily via its natural wonders. From walks through central park to deep introspections on gardening, to the Acadian Peregrines nesting on the Chrysler Building, each of the three protagonists grows and learns through the lens of nature, inspiring a deeper understanding of art, the world, and one another.
Alice is a college student struggling in the wake of an especially difficult breakup. When her professor, a still-life pencil artist named Emma, asks Alice to watch her son, Adam, neither of the women realize how close all three of them will become.
While Alice comes to terms with her estranged father in New Jersey, Emma sketches vegetables in Manhattan but has reached a point of confusion regarding her art. All three characters turn to nature for solace. While Emma searches for a new medium in her New York studio and on a family vacation exploring the cliffs of Acadia in Maine, she feels herself drifting further from the city, exploring the flora and fauna of Maine’s mountains and Central Park’s varieties of earth.
Alice calms the turmoil she experienced after her breakup and finds peace in recounting fairy tales and fables with Adam who is coming into his childhood filled with questions about the world, awed by plants, animals, and the roles humans play with each other. From these three characters’ alternating perspectives, Hiking Underground dives deep into the mental landscapes of each character, revealing how their troubles evolve and dissipate as they seek answers from the natural world.
Though such a quiet novel runs the risk of growing tedious, Smiley’s prose takes the helm, urging the reader on with rhythmic sentences, using nuanced language to depict well-limbed landscapes. With a world rendered through different perspectives—that of a mother, an adult daughter, and a young son—Smiley shows the reader how experience affects perception, how the world of the novel is really three different worlds. It’s only as the trio of characters become closer and understand each other more deeply that their separate worlds begin to intersect. With each character, the reader is invited to marvel at the scenery, from the smallest earthworm to the expanse of ocean seen from the Maine coast.
Hiking Underground is a work of emotion over action, of rumination, even illumination, rather than thrill. By the end of the novel the reader will sit in front of the final line wondering what it was all about. Which seems to be Smiley’s purpose: to propose the question and leave it unanswered, floating somewhere between the reader and the page.
As young Adam learns about longing and patience and Emma finds the bridge between her yearning and her art, and as Alice moves on from her failed relationship, the reader is left sitting with the question of the city versus the country which, they will find, isn’t a binary at all. Both exist simultaneously, both within and without.
In a time of climate change where so much eco-fiction illustrates worst-case-scenarios and environmental calamities, Smiley presents Hiking Underground as a celebration of the earth rather than a premonition of the earth’s end. Though it is important to draw attention to the way humans have damaged their environment, Smiley acknowledges this fact and then changes tact to remind us why we love the world we’re in, why we should hang onto it. Why we should revel in what’s all around us.
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