Field Study

Field Study

by Rachel Seiffert

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Rachel Seiffert, author of The Dark Room, powerfully evokes our need for human connection in this brilliant and haunting group of stories. From the title piece, in which a young biologist conceals his discoveries at a polluted river from a local woman, to the family aided by an enemy in 'The Crossing', to the old man weighing his regrets in 'Francis John


Rachel Seiffert, author of The Dark Room, powerfully evokes our need for human connection in this brilliant and haunting group of stories. From the title piece, in which a young biologist conceals his discoveries at a polluted river from a local woman, to the family aided by an enemy in 'The Crossing', to the old man weighing his regrets in 'Francis John Jones, 1924 -' Seiffert's acclaimed, refined prose movingly captures the lives of her characters in their most essential, secret moments.

A Rocky Mountain News Best Book of the Year.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In clear, pared-down prose, Seiffert, author of the critically acclaimed novel The Dark Room, crafts 11 intimate stories echoing with the dissonances of family life and massive historical upheaval. Set mostly in post-Communist Europe, the stories often start with Seiffert's characteristic sentence fragments, reminiscent of stage directions: "Summer and the third day of Martin's field study," begins the title story, in which Martin, a biology student, spitefully withholds information about the pollution levels of a river he's studying from a woman who rejects his advances. Descriptions are similarly telegraphic: in "Reach," a hairdresser mother is startled into fresh awareness of her seven-year-old daughter when the girl is ill, then cuts school ("Just looking at the slope of her daughter's shoulders, the nape of her neck, her sodden hair"). Though her settings are sharply rendered, Seiffert often omits crucial bits of information, turning her stories into puzzles, sad games, as in "The Crossing," in which a mother and children are helped across a river by a man whose accent betrays him as an enemy in an unspecified conflict. In "Second Best," the last, longest and best story of the collection, Seiffert allows herself more specificity in time and place (Poland and Berlin, 1996), as well as a more complete exploration of her characters' thoughts and feelings. Disciplined, spare and unsentimental, these are accomplished, often moving tales. Agent, Toby Eady. (July 20) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In ten short stories and one novella, all set primarily in Europe, we meet a variety of characters, among them an architect losing his grip on his profession and on reality, a British soldier AWOL in World War II Italy, a teenaged couple struggling with the reality of becoming parents, and an American woman driving her elderly father-in-law to his former street in East Berlin. A Polish woman named Ewa, and her son, Jacek, are featured in both the first story, "Field Study," as they befriend a Ph.D. candidate studying the local water supply, and the last selection, the novella "Second Best," as Ewa finds her son's absentee father living with another woman in Berlin. London native and Booker Prize nominee Seiffert (The Dark Room) has a rare gift for prose that is both elegantly concise and richly layered. We are given just enough detail to appreciate these subjects and their settings; characters are allowed to develop primarily through their actions, whether monumental or mundane. This is a fine collection from a young writer who displays a modern Europe with its particular social and political issues amid universal human themes. Highly recommended for literary fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/04.]-Jenn B. Stidham, Harris Cty. P.L., Houston Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Seiffert's The Dark Room (Knopf, 2002) brought together three novellas set in Germany. This collection is comprised of 11 short stories set in Germany, Britain, and America, but they share a precision of characterization and subtle relativity found in the earlier book. In the title story, a lonely graduate student becomes mildly obsessed with a young mother and her son in the rural community where he is undertaking environmental testing. In "Dog-Leg Lane," a much more obsessive character-a toddler-cannot bear any change in domestic habit. In "The Late Spring," an old man, a beekeeper, finds a small child on the verge of death. A couple of the stories echo themes or scenes from the earlier title. Seiffert's plots are tight, but these are character-driven tales with finely etched men, women, and children. Twentieth-century political sensibilities bubble close to the surface in most of them. Everything here is accessible to high school readers and will be welcomed by those with a taste for European film or a penchant for character exploration.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
First collection from Seiffert, who introduced us to her personal sentence in her universally praised debut novel, The Dark Room (2001). The present-tense sentence fragment returns in the title story of this sheaf of 11 pieces: "Summer and the third day of Martin's field study." Light and inconclusive, it tells of an American student working on his Ph.D. in Poland who samples what he thinks is a deadly metal in a stream. He has seen Ewa, who works at the cafe where he stays, and her young son Jacek, swimming in the "poisoned" stream. When he warns them of their peril, they and he fall into daily exchanges. She invites him to dinner. He asks about the communist years. She says, "You want to hear about no food and unhappiness, yes?" When his lab report comes back saying the metal doesn't reach Ewa and Jacek's favorite swimming hole, he tells them nothing. He leaves the country, shamed by his silence. As with Seiffert's earlier work, these pieces can be taken as field studies in many settings and eras. "Reach" (as in a school matron's "We can't reach your daughter") is about a single hairdresser at an English beach town and her two children. She bonds with her son in a fury of craving at birth, but unwillingly, she delivers her daughter under anesthesia, and it takes eight years, the daughter's near death from meningitis, then her persistent truancy from school for the mother to feel close to her. This can getcha awful choked up and leaky-eyed. In "Second Best," Ewa of the opening story leaves Jacek (who feels criminally abused by her desertion) to go off to Germany with the Polish asparagus cutters, make some money, then seek out Jacek's father, who abandoned wife and son by fleeing to WestBerlin for work. Does the title forewarn too strongly?No weak pieces here: only images hanging in a spoonful of water. Very much the story realist to match young Anthony Doerr. Agent: Toby Eady/Toby Eady Associates
From the Publisher
“Captivating. . . . Because Seiffert writes without judgment or sympathy, her flawed characters are all the more compelling.” –Entertainment Weekly“It is extraordinary to experience these fictions. . . . Not even the achievement of The Dark Room, its maturity and courage, will quite prepare the reader for the subtle art at work throughout these stories.” –The Irish Times
"'The Crossing' has all the leanness of Hemingway's short fiction. . . . In Seiffert's hands, the tale becomes a tense parable set at the dangerous intersection of trust, desperation and xenophobia." –The New York Times Book Review"Whether they are Polish émigrés or hoary World War I veterans, Seiffert's cast walks the knife's edge of history. . . . It takes an agile mind and dexterous prose to invoke such weighty chunks of history in short fiction." –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel“A magnificent collection: striking, moving, and deeply thought-provoking.” –Financial Times“Seiffert’s style places a reader outside and inside at once; the crafted simplicity of her sentences, the way they seem simply to tell you what’s there and nothing else, allows for unexpected complexity. The sense throughout is of something vital, understood but unsayable." –The Guardian“In this compelling collection of short stories, [Seiffert] continues the pattern of excellence she exhibited in her novel The Dark Room. . . . Powerful. . . . Seiffert's exquisite prose heightens the reading experience.” –Rocky Mountain News“Although Ms. Seiffert’s spareness looks like Hemingway’s prose, it is more like Virginia Woolf’s: mimetic of the brevity of lived experiences.” –New York Sun"A remarkable work by a gifted storyteller. . . . [Seiffert is] one of the best British authors writing today." –The Washington Times“Seiffert’s best stories are . . . self-contained studies of characters who in their various ways resist the condition of being merely passive or acted on. Her strengths as a writer—her discipline and craft, her accretion of observation, her naturalistic characterisation, her spare but poetic prose, her tightly controlled narration—come to the fore.” –The Times Literary Supplement (London) "Field Study, as the title suggests, is a collection of sketches that take on the tone and mood of an Edward Hopper painting, only set in a borderless, 21st-century Europe." –The Austin Chronicle“Seiffert has the rare ability to make original and truthful observations in unfussy, economical prose that communicates an insistently individual rhythm.” –The Daily Telegraph"The eleven stories that comprise this very affecting collection are all quietly stunning. Perhaps it is the simple language and the straightforward narration. Perhaps it is the series of haunting and haunted characters, each painted with precise dots of recognition that draw us inexorably into their lives. Or perhaps it is that the stories stand separately and magnificently by themselves, even as their cumulative effect resonates for days after the book has been completed." –The Anniston Star

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International
Sold by:
Random House
File size:
255 KB

Read an Excerpt

Please note: This is only part of one story in the complete collection.

"Field Study"

Summer and the third day of Martin’s field study. Morning, and he is parked at the side of the track, looking out over the rye he will walk through shortly to reach the river. For two days he has been alone, gathering his mud and water samples, but not today.

A boy shouts and sings in the field. His young mother carries him piggyback through the rye. Martin hears their voices, thin through the open window of his car. He keeps still. Watching, waiting for them to pass.

The woman’s legs are hidden in the tall stalks of the crop and the boy’s legs are skinny. He is too big to be carried comfortably, and mother and son giggle as she struggles on through the rye. The boy wears too-large trainers, huge and white, and they hang heavy at his mother’s sides. Brushing the ears of rye as she walks, bumping at her thighs as she jogs an unsteady step or two. Then swinging out wide as she spins on the spot: whirling, stumbling around and around. Twice, three times, four times, laughing, lurching as the boy screams delight on her back.

They fall to the ground and Martin can’t see them anymore. Just the rye and the tops of the trees beyond: where the field slopes down and the river starts its wide arc around the town. Three days Martin has been here. Only another four days to cover the area, pull enough data together for his semester paper, already overdue. The young woman and her child have gone. Martin climbs out of the car, gathers his bags, and locks the doors.

This river begins in the high mountains Martin cannot see but knows lie due south of where he stands. Once it passes the coal and industry of the foothills, it runs almost due west into these flat farming lands, cutting a course through the shallow valley on which his Ph.D. studies are centered. Past the town where he is stay- ing and on through the provincial capital, until it finally mouths in the wide flows which mark the border between Martin’s country and the one he is now in. Not a significant stretch of water historically, commercially, not even especially pretty. But a cause for concern nonetheless: here, and even more so in Martin’s country, linking as it does a chemical plant on the eastern side of the border with a major population center to the west.

Martin has a camera, notebooks, and vials. Some for river water, others for river mud. Back in the town, in his room at the guesthouse, he has chemicals and a microscope. More vials and dishes. The first two days’ samples, still to be analyzed, a laptop on which to record his results.

The dark uneven arc of the trees is visible for miles, marking the path of the river through the yellow-dry countryside. The harvest this year will be early and poor. Drought, and so the water level of the river is low, but the trees along its banks are still full of new growth, thick with leaves, the air beneath them moist.

Martin drinks the first coffee of the day from his flask, by the water’s edge. The river has steep banks, and roots grow in twisted detours down its rocky sides. He has moved steadily west along the river since the beginning of the week, covering about a kilometer each day, with a two-kilometer gap in between. Up until now, the water has been clear, but here it is thick with long fronds of weed. Martin spreads a waterproof liner on the flat rock, lays out vials and spoons in rows. He writes up the labels while he drinks his second coffee, then pulls on his long waterproof gloves. Beyond the branches, the field shimmers yellow-white and the sun is strong; under the trees, Martin is cool. Counting, measuring, writing, photographing. Long sample spoon scratching river grit against the glass of the vials.

Late morning and hot now, even under the trees. The water at this point in the river is almost deep enough to swim. Martin lays out his vials, spoons, and labels for the third time that morning. Wonders a moment or two what it would be like to lie down in the lazy current, the soft weed. Touches his gloved fingertips to the surface and counts up all the toxic substances he will test his samples for later. He rolls up his trouser legs as high as they will go before he pulls on the waders, enjoys the cool pressure of the water against the rubber against his skin as he moves carefully out to about midstream. The weed here is at its thickest, and Martin decides to take a sample of that, too. The protective gauntlets make it difficult to get a grip, but Martin manages to pull one plant from the riverbed with its root system still reasonably intact. He stands awhile, feeling the current tug its way around his legs, watching the fingers of weed slowly folding over the gap he has made. Ahead is a sudden dip, a small waterfall that Martin had noted yesterday evening on the map. The noise of the cascade is loud, held in close by the dense green avenue of trees. Martin wades forward and when he stops again, he hears voices, a laugh-scream.

The bushes grow dense across the top of the drop, but Martin can just see through the leaves: young mother and son, swimming in the pool hollowed out by the waterfall. They are close. He can see the boy take a mouthful of water and spray it at his mother as she swims around the small pool. Can see the mud between her toes when she climbs out and stands on the rock at the water’s edge. The long black-green weed stuck to her thigh. She is not naked, but her underwear is pale, pink-white like her skin, and Martin can also see the darker wet of nipples and pubic hair. He turns quickly and wades back to the bank, weed sample held carefully in gauntleted hands.

He stands for a moment by his bags, then pulls off the waders, pulls on his shoes again. He will walk round them, take a detour across the fields, and they will have no cause to see him. He has gathered enough here already, after all. The pool and waterfall need not fall within his every-hundred-meters remit. No problem.

Martin sleeps an hour when he gets back to the guesthouse. Open window providing an occasional breeze from the small back court and a smell of bread from the kitchen. When he wakes the sun has passed over the top of the building and his room is pleasantly cool and dim.

He works for an hour or two on the first day’s mud and water vials, and what he finds confirms his hypothesis. Everything within normal boundaries, except one particular metal, present in far higher concentrations than one should expect.

His fingers start to itch as he parcels up a selection of samples to send back to the university lab for confirmation. He knows this is psychosomatic, that he has always been careful to wear protection: doesn’t even think that poisoning with this metal is likely to produce such a reaction. He includes the weed sample in his parcel, with instructions that a section be sent on to botany, and a photocopy of the map, with the collection sites clearly marked. In the post office, his lips and the skin around his nostrils burn, and so despite his reasoning, he allows himself another shower before he goes down to eat an early dinner in the guesthouse café.

The boy from the stream is sitting on one of the high stools at the bar, doing his homework, and the waitress who brings Martin his soup is his mother. She wishes him a good appetite in one of the few phrases he understands in this country, and when Martin thanks her using a couple of words picked up on his last visit, he thinks she looks pleased.

Martin watches her son while he eats. Remembers the fountain of river water the boy aimed at his mother, wonders how much he swallowed, if they swim there regularly, how many years they might have done this for. Martin thinks he looks healthy enough, perhaps a little underweight.

His mother brings Martin a glass of wine with his main course, and when he tries to explain that he didn’t order it, she just puts her finger to her lips and winks. She is thin, too, but she looks strong; broad shoulders and palms, long fingers, wide nails. She pulls her hands behind her back, and Martin is aware now that he has been staring. He lowers his eyes to his plate, watches her through his lashes as she moves on to the next table. Notes: Good posture, thick hair. But Martin reasons while he eats that such poisons can take years to make their presence felt; nothing for a decade or two, then suddenly tumors and shortness of breath in middle age.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

The daughter of an Australian father and a German mother, Rachel Seiffert was born in Oxford and lives in London. She is the author the Booker-shortlisted novel The Dark Room - which won a Betty Trask Award and the Los Angeles Times' Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction - and the novel Afterwards. She was named one of Granta's 'Best of Young British' and one of 25 women writers to watch in the 'Orange Futures' promotion.

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