H is for hawk by Helen Macdonald, a non fiction classic?


I know I am a latecomer to this award winning book. It scooped the Costa and the Samuel Johnson prize in 2014 (I think). At the time of its publication I was going through the acute experience of bereavement myself and steered clear of anything that seemed to turn grief into a creative process. What actually drew me to read it now was simply this beautiful edition. I really am so shallow I judge a book by its cover.

It is a book about how Macdonald trains a goshawk in the midst of her grief for her father and a life crisis where she finds herself with no job and no home. Of course, training a goshawk is not like training a puppy, this is not a route to domestication rather an exploration of wildness, of nature and the place of life and death. Macdonald is an experienced falconer when she begins but training a goshawk is something else, something more brutal and even has a different name, austringer. Goshawks are like sparrowhawks  but “bulkier, bloodier, deadlier and scarier and much, much harder to see…looking for goshawks is like looking for grace.” She buys her goshawk, Mabel, in a strange exchange on a dock in Scotland where she sees Mabel as “a fallen angel” and brings her back to Cambridge where the birds wildness fills the house. 

As well as being a memoir of grief, it is also a biography of T.H.White, famous for “The Sword in the Stone” and the subsequent books about the court of King Arthur that inspired the musical Camelot. White was also an austringer. Like Macdonald, he buys a goshawk and decides to train it when he is lost, having left teaching and being deeply unsure of the person he is and his own desires. Unlike Macdonald, his attempt to train Gos is a found lacking and he graphically records his lack of progress in The Goshawk (1951), published sometime after the events as, in White’s own view, it was a record of failure and he had successfully trained hawks subsequently. It was the parts of the book where Macdonald reflected White’s biography, mingling this with her childhood recollections of The Goshawk that I found the most compelling. White comes to life as a character, and as a writer, in a way no one else in the narrative does, including Macdonald herself.

I enjoyed this book very much but it’s probably not one I would return to, in fact, if it wasn’t so pretty it would be heading to the book exchange. Macdonald writes about hawking and the landscape where she lives quite beautifully at times,

This sense of where the animals are is the coincidence of long experience with unconsciously noted clues. The incidence of sunlight on a stubblefield, and the pressure of wind on the same. The precise colour of the ground. I move towards the larks as if I could see them.

Though the landscape did feel alien to me, English, not British, Southern and agricultural. She presents a hawks eye view, wild and untamed. Essentially, however, I did not feel I knew her, her grief or her father. She is obviously sad and there is something about her relationship with Mabel that helps her process the sudden death of her father, who remains an elusive ghost throughout. Where the book triumphs is when she talks about T.H.White and it has left me wanting to reach down “The Once and Future King” and read again those parts where the young Arthur, Wart, enters the world in animal form and sees life through the eyes of nature. I also know I need to acquire my own copy of “The Goshawk” which I haven’t read for many years and I am now itching to revisit.

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‘under rose tainted skies’by Louise Gornall

I begin by declaring this is really not the sort of book I normally ‘go for’ and the reason I did is because I know the author. In fact, I was a teacher at her primary school and bought my copy at her book launch with the sense of transferred pride only teachers share about former students! The book is only out in the UK at the moment but heading to the States soon. It’s published by Chicken House and is available in several shades of pink.

Having admitted that I would normally never pick up a YA pink covered novel, I have to say I was surprised by how much of this one I enjoyed. It is the story of a teenager, Norah, who is confined to her house by agrophobia combined with OCD tendencies. The story is narrated by Norah, giving an inside her head account of life within her house and accompanying internal dialogue as she faces each day. Though ostensibly set in California, the story could really be on any suburban housing estate anywhere because the story takes place virtually totally within the house. What is surprising about this is how interesting and compelling the depiction of Norah’s agrophobia is,

They -the geeks that deal in brain stuff- call what I have an invisible illness, but I often wonder if they’re really looking. Beyond the science stuff. It doesn’t bleed or swell itch or crack, but I see it, right there on my face. It’s like decay, this icky free colour, as if my life were being filmed through a grey filter. I lack light, am an entire surface area that the sun can’t touch.

Gornall actually depicts mental illness from within the mindset of an unwell teenager as though it is happening to her now offering real insight. Reading this shows how Norah’s illness is totally debilitating, for her and her mother. She demonstrates the better times and the terrible times, when she spirals towards self harm.

It works like a shake, a slap, an injection of anaesthetic. I picture it like a never ending tug of war between panic and calm. Self-harm is an impartial observer that steps up with something sharp to sever the rope. The minute the cut is made, both teams fly back, collapse to the ground on top of one another, exhausted.

For me, this is where the writing is at its strongest. I hope Gornall returns to these themes as a more mature writer writing for an older audience. I believe she has real potential. 

I was less interested in the romance aspects, then it is a YA novel. Though the character of Norah is well drawn, I was not as convinced by Luke as a romantic interest. Similarly, Norah’s mom is a little too wonderful though Norah’s doctor is more convincing. It is the doctor who draws attention to the behavioural tics that give away Norah’s state of mind and make the reader notice their own quirks. Norah doesn’t have a story behind her health she is just ill. This resonated strongly for me how fragile health is, mental and physical, an important understanding to convey, especially to young adults searching for their own version of what normal means.

July Book Club: Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman.

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This is a good holiday read to brighten up the damp July weather in rainy Lancashire. The story is set in Cornwall (though a few book clubbers agreed it actually felt quite American) just after the end of the Second World War. The Marvellous Ways of the title is an elderly lady living in a gypsy caravan by a Cornish creek, self sufficient and filled with wild, magical wisdom. A returning soldier falls into her path, ostensibly on his way to deliver a letter to a bereaved father, but through their relationship and the slow telling of Marvellous’ life his grief and guilt from the war are explored and he slowly heals towards a new life as Marvellous moves towards the end of hers.

It took me a little while to get into this story. It felt quite disjointed as bits of the story begin in different locations with very different characters and the lack of speech marks makes it an unconventional read. If it hadn’t been a book club book I think I would have put it to one side. Of course, the joy of being in a book club is that it persuades you to read things beyond personal taste and, in the case of this story, I’m glad I did push through. The story is lyrical with a generous sprinkling of ‘magical reality’. I was happy to believe Marvellous’ mother was a mermaid and that is is possible to find your true love’s face by cracking an egg white into a glass of water. The magical qualities of the story seem to stem from nature, cooking and the infusion of everything with love. All the characters in the story are interconnected by a web of apparent co-incidence that links them through Marvellous. It’s an enjoyable holiday read, though not a ‘keeper’.

Aspects of the blend of magic and reality reminded me of ‘Like water for chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel or one of Joanne Harris’ French novels, ‘Blackberry Wine’ or ‘Chocolat’, though Marvellous Ways is not quite as successful in blending magic and reality as these stories. Everyone in my reading group had enjoyed the story, which is unusual though a few had struggled to get into it a the beginning. It’s a book that does look at some dark and brutal aspects of life, including the war, but it moves forwards with hope and optimism. If you feel a little optimism is needed right now then perhaps this is a book to brighten the summer days?

Charlotte Bronte: A Life by Claire Harman

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I read and re-read the Bronte novels a lot. Look back at the past few months and there are at least three Bronte based posts. When this book came out at first I did not buy it simply because I found it hard to believe that it would really tell me anything I did not know already about the life of Charlotte Bronte and was unlikely to shed much insight onto her work. I am an official Bronte bore. Then my sister bought it for me so I thought I might as well read it just to inflate my head a little more.

I found it is a very readable biography. Harman is succinct in her writing about Charlotte’s life, she does not indulge in endless speculation or fabricate Charlotte’s actual life based on her novels. It is not the most scholarly book about Charlotte Bronte’s life I have read and I would still head to Juliet Barker’s work as a ‘fact checker’. However, though Barker’s books read like a thesis Harman’s reads like a novel. This is not a criticism. It makes the biography entertaining and it draws out Charlotte’s life both before and after she is known as the author of ‘Jane Eyre’. Harman also draws on Charlotte’s whole body of work to flesh out her story, drawing on her juvenilia as a reflection of her state of mind, her letters and poetry as well as her novels. As it is a biography the emphasis is on her life. Harman focuses on Charlotte Bronte’s unrequited loved for Constantine Heger as a catalyst behind all her novels and does speculate on what Heger’s  motives and desires were, highlighting his correspondence with other former students. Harman also delves into Charlotte’s life as a curate’s wife and how happy she was with Arthur Bell Nichols despite his lack of resemblance to either Mr. Rochester or Heger which is often overlooked by other biographers.

It is marketed by Penguin as the bicentennial biography. It is a good summative overview of what has been learned, explored and imagined about the life of Charlotte Bronte, her changing relationship with her brother Branwell and the intertwining of her life with her two writer sisters. For those who want to read the Bronte story it is a probably the best book to begin with, however, for Bronte scholars and PhD students is offers few new insights and Harman is a biographer deriving much of her source material from others rather than a researcher or literary critic seeking to be original. It is an entertaining and enjoyable read but may not be read in two hundred years time, unlike ‘Jane Eyre’.

Atonement: a Booker revisited.

IMG_0617Can you ever read the same book twice?

I’ve been creating bookshelf space and struggling with that question of which books to keep and which ones to pass on. ‘Atonement’ was one I lingered over and decided I needed to read it again to know if it’s a keeper. I first read McEwan’s Atonement when it was a ‘new’ book, nominated for the Booker prize and when everyone seemed to be talking about it as THE book to read. Now, fifteen years later, it is an A level text and established as a modern classic, by whomsoever establishes these things. The power of the novel when I read it at first was based on the shock that revealed a deep plot twist and the reason for the books title. I wondered if knowing this would mean I didn’t enjoy the book on a second read, could I read a book that uses revelation as such a powerful plot device and still enjoy it, knowing what happens at the end?

The short answer to my own question is ‘no’, though I feel a long , however, is needed. Reading it this time I appreciated the author’s craft much more. I noticed the different narrative voices that are played with, the intense descriptions of Briony, the child who fails to understand what she sees yet rejoices in her importance when her narrative is heard contrasting with soldier Robbie’s simplistic descriptions of the horror at Dunkirk. I also recognised that actually the book could be called Atonement? Does the adult author Briony ever actually atone for her childhood ‘sin’, how can she make amends to the dead? Certainly as a 77 year old writer she does not confess to her surviving family or confront the Marshalls who she believes have been implicit in her lie for sixty four years. The story she leaves to explain her mistake is to be published posthumously which avoids litigation and sidesteps justice for the living and the dead. In my view, she remains as unredeemed in the fictional world she is portraying as she is the the ‘real’ events of the book.

The second part of this ‘however’ would also comment that as a novel of the twenty-first century, it comments on the social structures of the first half of the twentieth century.  No one accuses or suspects the rich Paul Marshall of rape, the word of middle class Briony is taken over the protestations of servant’s son Robbie. Celia leaves Cambridge with no prospect other than marriage until she chooses nursing to escape from her family. The father of the Tallis family never actually comes into view as he conducts a relationship ‘in town’, the mother is nervous and hysterical and treated as foolish by servants and children alike.  In a second reading I realised the layering of narratives makes this a novel about perspectives, is Mrs. Tallis ineffectual, a wronged wife, mentally ill, a migraine sufferer or all of these? Who actually ever knows the ‘truth’ and how can we condemn others for their sins without recognising the flaws that might be in our own perspective. Then this book is called atonement and how can we remove the mote of dust from the eye of another without removing the log from our own?

Is this a book worth reading? Absolutely yes. Is it worth re-reading? again, I would say ‘yes’ because it is so well written that though the  shock factor is gone, the narrative power and the ability of McEwan as an author is such that I now think I will read it for a third time. It is a book that will stay on my shelf.