Saturday, 30 May 2015

'H is for Hawk' by Helen Macdonald

Winning the Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction Prize and the Costa Book of the Year in 2014, 'H is for Hawk' is an instant classic. A memoir detailing Macdonald's training of a goshawk in the countryside of Cambridge, it tackles the wildness of bereavement alongside a taming of the self in relation to nature. It is a wonderful book, at once beautiful, engrossing and ultimately uplifting, much like the hawk it describes. Macdonald's poetic vision, her mindful awareness of the juxtaposition between nature and humanity, is what makes this book stand out and worthy of its accolades.

Struggling with bereavement, Macdonald decides to buy a goshawk off a man in Northern Ireland. She is an experienced falconer, has been inspired by birds and training them since a small girl, but the goshawk is a challenge. Brilliantly Macdonald describes her growing relationship with the hawk in vivid details which are sublimely readable and often disturbingly beautiful. In parallel to this she details TH White's (author of the 'Once and Future King') past struggle training his own, hot-tempered goshawk. There are interesting comparisons; however, it is Macdonald's exploration of the relationship between the loss of her father and the attachment to her hawk where, as one reviewer put it, the book really 'sings.' 

Having read books on mindfulness, I cannot help but see Macdonald's memoir as a mindful re-engagement of humanity through nature. She realizes the limitations of the hawk, its essential wildness, and mirrors this in herself. There are, of course, subtle references to climate change and our transforming countryside. As a reader, I am in awe of Macdonald's total immersion in nature and the livelihood of her hawk, but there are warnings of getting too close. This is what makes the book soar even higher; there is an underlying, highly relevant critique on humanity's link to the environment. Can human consciousness ever be harmonious with wild nature? Or are the two things the same? This is what lifts the book into higher realms.

It soars, it bates, it is wild in your hands; 'H is for Hawk' is a book with wings. 

Monday, 25 May 2015

'A Tale of Two Cities' By Charles Dickens

More serious, more tense, less comical, Dicken's 'A Tale of Two Cities' is a uniquely different novel compared to the rest of his oeuvre. Dickens claimed it to be the 'best story I have written.' It is certainly tighter, more succinct in nature; however characters are not quite as engaging as in his other works. Despite this, 'A Tale of Two Cities' is a rich evocation of the turbulent end of the 18th century with Paris in turmoil to revolution and London buckling under crime and poverty.

The beginning of the novel is grand and, of course, instantly memorable: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief...' Dickens prepares us for the historical setting like a Shakespearean statesman: 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen...' Unlike many of his other novels, the grand themes of a previous age are announced as if from a pulpit. And with an opening scene pertaining to a carriage driving through fog, there is an atmosphere of stately moroseness. Dicken's effortless rendering of atmosphere is what gripped me the most; the sense of mystery and suspense the initial hook. Dicken's descriptions of London and particularly Paris through its bloodthirsty revolution are highlights. He researched ardently, and at the time he had come out of his marriage depressed and sombre. It shows. This is a Dickens looking upon the past with less humour, more wisdom.

At times I was frustrated by Dicken's masking of characters, his sometimes slow revealing of character's intentions and desires. In some ways this perhaps merely reflects the times, especially in Paris where so many were ambiguous personalities; spies, suspicious of the aristocracy. The expanded metaphor of Mrs Defarge knitting the plots of revolution is also symbolic of the story; it knits many characters together, across the English Channel. As I have said, in points I found this a little slow, but the reward is the finale, which took me by surprise. I expected a grand, revolutionary, chaotic ending, to parallel the stately opening. Instead the ending focuses on the sacrifice of one person for love. Dickens is, at the end, preaching less from the pulpit and more from the confession box. And this is what Dickens does best; showing the human condition in times of intense vulnerability. For me, the ending knitted everything perfectly or rather slashed the thread with a sharp edge.

I enjoyed 'A Tale of Two Cities' less than his other works, yet it remains just as memorable. It marks a turning point in his writing; one that is darker, less hopeful, more bleak.