Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Helen Macdonald, _H Is for Hawk_

A FINE BOOK, multiply-honored last year, and quite deservingly. Three main strands.

In one, MacDonald, a falconer (also "writer, illustrator, historian, naturalist," and affiliated with Cambridge), recounts how she trained her goshawk, Mabel.

In the second, she works through her grieving for her  recently passed father.

In the third, she ponders an earlier book on training a goshawk, T. H. White's The Goshawk, which leads into a consideration of his life, career, and other books.

The three strands course along in parallel fashion, occasionally intersecting, for a while, but by midpoint they are criss-crossing at higher energy levels each time, an day the closing chapters they have movingly fused.

The book makes a powerful whole--at the same time, any number of chapters could be excerpted for use in a class, which is a nice bonus, from my point of view.

What I really liked, though--I'm over-generalizing, but American women prose writers under forty tend to go for a kind of austerity, a spareness, a slightly-chilled, holding-back-a-bit, Didion-esque tone. I am thinking this partly because I just read Lucy Ives, I think, but Eula Biss and Leslie Jamison (for instance) often seem to be aiming at something similar.

Macdonald's prose has obviously never been near a creative non-fiction workshop, and no one ever told her to dial it down, or prune those similes, or cut back on the description. Not that her style is florid or sprawling...but it is generous. A relatively random sample:

Two days before the service [her father's] something very strange happened on the hill. We'd been walking up a hedgerow running down the edge of a field of undersown stubble. There was a pheasant in the hedge; I'd heard it cluck and run, rat-wise, along the damp and nettly ditch, and Mabel had heard it too. She'd crashed over the hedge and perched out of sight at the top, facing away from me. Her blood was up and mine too. I shouldered my way into the hedge, knowing that any second now the pheasant would rocket out in front of me in a burnished clatter of feathers.

I can imagine that passage getting any number of helpful comments in a workshop, leading to the disappearance of all the touches that constitute a kind of stylistic fingerprint.

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