h is for hawk

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve arranged the book reviews in groups loosely on the same theme. Here’s the first set. More to come.

H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald
The Bees Laline Paull
The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King, #1) T.H White
The Witch in the Wood (The Once and Future King, #2) T.H White
The Ill-Made Knight (The Once and Future King, #3) T.H White
The Candle in the Wind (The Once and Future King, #4) T.H White
The Book of Merlyn (The Once and Future King, #5) T.H White

H is for Hawk Helen Macdonald

helen macdonald

(Photo of H. Macdonald from the Times)

When Helen Macdonald’s beloved father dies suddenly and unexpectedly, she feels totally adrift, and looks for a challenge to pull her out of her increasingly unfulfilling life as a academic. Growing up, she loved birdwatching and the books of T.H. White, and as an adult became an accomplished trainer of birds of prey. Recalling White’s The Goshawk, where he has a nervous breakdown, and decides to quit his teaching job and become a hermit in order train a goshawk (a bird with a wild and feral reputation), but makes a complete mess of it due to lack of experience, turning the book into an epic struggle against himself and his troubled psyche as much as against nature and the bird, she decides to try training a goshawk, using her experience to make a success of it this time. Expecting to totally lose herself in a battle of wills against a fearsome unknowable creature like T.H. White did, she ends up with friendly Mabel who likes watching tv and chasing rabbits, and the battle is with grief and sense of identity. The book also entwines Macdonald’s story with a biography of White, a strange and tortured man, with astonishingly awful parents. Scarred by his traumatic and emotionally cold upbringing, and struggling with his sexuality in a repressive era, his main bond was with animals. The writing of the book is beautiful and austere (and one of the best books I’ve read this year), and really immerses you in the strange turns both Helen Macdonald and T.H. White’s lives take.

The Bees Laline Paull

beeswax

(honeycomb image from Wikipedia)

This is basically Watership Down, but with bees, and a touch of the Handmaid’s Tale- I don’t think I’ve ever read a book written from the point of view of a bee before. Flora 717 is a larger than average bee, who was supposed to be assigned to cleaning duty as an untouchable, but ends up doing all kinds of different jobs around the hive, struggling to fit in with the strictly regimented (and somewhat dystopic) bee society. In particular I really enjoyed the way the world is described through smells and pheromones and the body language of the bees and flowers. Growing up, I used to live next door to a beekeeper, and when I lived in Brighton, there was a house a few streets away that sold honey from their own hive, and I’ve always liked the serene, focused, diligent atmosphere that the idea of beekeeping conjures up (maybe it’s not so calm in real life when you have to deal with angry bees). Beekeeping is something that interests me, but I don’t think living in gardenless flats in London on short-term, unprotected tenancies is a good situation to get into beekeeping!

The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King, #1) T.H White
The Witch in the Wood (The Once and Future King, #2) T.H White
The Ill-Made Knight (The Once and Future King, #3) T.H White
The Candle in the Wind (The Once and Future King, #4) T.H White
The Book of Merlyn (The Once and Future King, #5) T.H White

I used to love the Disney version of the Sword in the Stone, but somehow never read the books as a child, which is really strange. So after reading H is for Hawk, I decided to read them for myself, especially as the Disney version of books is usually pretty bowdlerised. The first two books are a total delight, mixing a 1066 and All That style approach to history with captivating sections about nature and animals, clearly written by someone who knows and understands wildlife well (and with a section where Arthur is turned into an ant, which The Bees strongly recalls). I’m sad that I didn’t read them as a child. As the books continue though, and the focus changes to the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, everything gets murkier, and there’s lots of sections of a strange jumbled psychoanalysis of the characters and their motivations. I still kind of like the approach T.H. White takes of going “oh of course you know Thomas Malory backwards, let’s skip over this entire bit, and then focus on this part that I’m going to interpret and explore” though even if it makes for some strange or disjointed story-telling structure at times, and often feels like him using the traditional form of the King Arthur stories to explore but not quite solve or understand his own personal issues.

I’ve always liked how the King Arthur stories mix together probably real/conflated historical figures like Merlin, probably very old myths and legends, and whatever was currently fashionable in medieval times, and then with an extra layer of 19th century writers like Tennyson adding in their own fanciful and romantic ideas of what medieval meant, resulting in stories that can be retold and reinterpreted in countless ways (often very cheesy ways, I must admit).

Once I was on holiday in Cornwall, and we visited Tintagel Castle, which is King Arthur’s birthplace in the story. There was a local bookshop that also sold refreshments. I went in to buy a much needed drink on such a hot day, and have a quick browse of the books, most of which were either King Arthur themed or about New Age topics. Waiting at the counter was an Italian tourist who spoke excellent English. He asked the shop owner if they had any special editions of the Mort d’Arthur, the epic poem by Malory, maybe something with illustrations or an attractive binding, as he wanted to buy it as a gift for a friend back in Italy who was a professor of Medieval Literature. The shop owner didn’t have anything like that in stock, but undeterred and using the loud patronising voice of Basil Fawlty talking to foreign guests, went into quite a sales spiel for Mists of Avalon, a super-cheesy 80s soft erotica novel type book (which also manages to be quite po-faced New Age/2nd wave at the same time) telling the story from the perspective of Morgan the witch, which has a famously trashy screen version with Angelica Houston (it’s basically the 80s hippy 50 Shades of Gray). Despite the Italian man’s polite declining of the book on the grounds that it was too modern and not really the sort of thing he was looking for, she continued trying to push it, saying it “provided the missing feminine element” and was “very sensual”. At that point I had to leave the shop and burst out laughing. I don’t think she was successful in selling the book.