I mostly read fiction: an escapist flight from the same rigours of the real world – work, a beautiful but demanding three-year old – that have kept me from keeping up-to-date with my reviews!
So this book has languished on my kindle to-be-read pile for a while. A pretty long while. Which just goes to show what I know!
Because this is a beautiful and haunting read.
It is a book of many things, many parts: an account of Macdonald’s attempts to train and hunt with a goshawk; a pastoral love letter; a biography of T. H. White – he of The Once and Future King fame – and his clumsy attempts to train and hunt his own goshawk a hundred years earlier; an achingly painful personal account of Macdonald’s response to her father’s death, which prompted her to seek out the goshawk originally. There were times when the book was so openly honest that it almost felt awkward and intrusive to be reading it. Reading it is, genuinely, like watching Macdonald suffer a nervous breakdown in front of your eyes: fascinating, moving and hauntingly powerful.
Macdonald is an academic at the University of Cambridge and this shows in her writing: as you’d expect, it is erudite and considered and researched. And replete with technical terms such as jesses and mantling and austringer and bating, an entire new lexical field to play in!
What I hadn’t expected was the beauty and power and lyricism of her prose. It is a much quoted passage but as an example, consider this:
In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail.
Or, when she first sees her own hawk
Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.
As a writer, Macdonald is exquisite and this book is as a prose poem as much as it belongs to any of the other genres mentioned above.
I’m not sure why it should have fallen like this, but in my reading, I followed this book – in which grief, loss of a father and birds intermingle – with Max Porter’s Grief is The Thing With Feathers – in which grief, the loss of a wife and mother and a crow intermingle.
It was, to say the least, an interesting juxtaposition.