It is the third book by Helen Macdonald, a Cambridge academic, not fiction but not a usual non-fiction book either. It is part memoir, part biography of TH White and part nature study. As the preface says it is: ‘a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to try to reconcile death with life and love.’ These are all aspects which we discussed.
Many of us felt we would not have read it if it hadn’t been ‘compulsory’ for Book club. The beginning was popular among members. It was well written, evocative, engaging and left of field. One member pointed out that Australia has a goshawk but it is different from the one in the book – see here. English goshawks are ‘grey with a black and white barred front, yellow eyes and long tail’ and bigger than the Australian birds.
The biographical details of TH White (1906-64) who was the writer of 28 books including many fantasy novels about King Arthur (such as The sword in the stone) are woven into this book in a seamless and effortless way. She often compares her life with that of White’s rather tormented and sad life as derived from his Goshawk memoir published in 1951.
Another part of the text, is the period of Helen’s grieving for her father, a London photographer, Alisdair Macdonald, 1940-2007. He died suddenly and she was profoundly shocked by her lack of connection with him. You can read about him online.
The acquiring and training of the goshawk (Mabel) is a way for her to cope with her grief. Her grief leads to a type of madness where she begins to feel she is part bird. In addition she is extremely depressed in a clinical sense and the bird helps her (together with medical assistance) deal with those pressures too.
Macdonald compares her skills of bird training with White’s lack of success. Her repetition of this fact together with the telling of the exercise of taking Mabel out to the Cambridge countryside to hunt annoyed a few readers, although we all enjoyed her beautiful descriptions of the countryside and the cold and sounds of England. One comment was that the book evokes the resonance of history. This is a lovely way of saying that Macdonald as a historian was able to recreate the life of White so intimately. She is a very good writer and this has been recognised in Great Britain by the award of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction in 2014 and the Costa Book of the year prize.
Many members became tired of her self absorption, even though we also acknowledged that she was very honest in her writing about her problems and her depression/madness. Because of this inner contemplation we felt that she couldn’t properly register her mother’s predicament and feelings. Helen really cut her family off during this time in her life. Helen’s friends also tried to assist her, especially her friend Christina. She too was dismissed and it was only her falconry friends she was willing to spend time with.
One member thought of the book as a journey in Macdonald’s life which we the reader had to travel with her.
We all appreciated learning a little about the complexities of training a wild bird but also the moral problems associated with such an activity. (A few of us have seen demonstrations of falconry. Personally, I was impressed at the time, but now I am not so sure. I think none of us like the idea of caging wild creatures.) Hunting is a moral problem for Helen and her descriptions of successfully killing the creatures, rabbits and pheasants Mabel targeted was not pleasant reading for us. It is truly a blood sport. Her friends found it morally questionable too.
The question of freedom is integral to this book – both for the bird but also for Helen as she copes with her life falling apart – lack of focus which really leads to her lack of a job, grief and even lack of practical things like having somewhere to live.
The comparison was made with the memoir and film, Wild based on the true life story of an American woman, Cheryl Strayed, who in 1995, walked 1100 miles, trying to cope with grief and difficulties. It was similar in that both women had an overreaction to grief and ‘used nature’ to heal themselves. A comparison was also made with Joan Didion who wrote Year of magical thinking. This book is about Didion’s response to her husband’s death and the illness of her daughter. It deals with the not uncommon feeling of derangement after the death of a close relative.
In conclusion we thought she was kind to TH White. They were both running away from difficult situations. The author does fare much better than White however. There was some discussion of falconry as a traditional part of English life which was something to be proud of as well as something that should be re-invented for more modern times possibly.
The meeting with the elderly couple who admire her goshawk and the tradition of hunting contrasted strongly with their racist comments and this was one odd note in the book most of us felt. She was angry with them as they were ‘too thick’ to see all the good things around them which have come from elsewhere. Helen Macdonald felt she was an outsider too – especially when she trespassed onto private property. Nature knows no bounds and falconry used to be the sport of the rich landed gentry and aristocracy with abundant lands contrasting with the suburban house and garden of modern falconers.
In chapter 18 there is a very memorable passage:
There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes the day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes… and you realise that you have to grow around and between the gaps … you can put your hand out to …where the memories are.