H is for Hawk and To the River – a review

As you know, I have only just begun reading non-fiction for pleasure. Already, I have found a genre I rather like, although the specificity of this genre makes it difficult to say whether it really counts as a genre, or possibly even as a sub-genre.

In both H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, and To the River, by Olivia Laing, the authors are women who, on experiencing a loss – in the former the loss of a father, in the latter the lose of a partner at the close of a relationship – take solace in an earlier, natural, pleasure.

In H is for Hawk, this pleasure is falconry. Macdonald decides that, in the wake of her father’s death, she should begin one of the greatest challenges for those who tame birds of prey – she chooses to train a goshawk. Her desire to tame the hawk is tied up with T. H. White’s horribly botched attempt to do the same thing, as he described in The Goshawk. While she, unlike White, actually knows what she is doing, their anxieties, and the desire to escape from humanity and be loved by their birds, are definitely the same, and binding.

Olivia Laing,meanwhile, chooses to walk down the length of the river Ouse. Her book has less focus on a single person who has gone before – although the spectre of Virginia Woolfe’s suicide in the river frequently hovers over the pages of the book. Instead, she relates a number of historical people and events linked with the river and its surroundings.

The reason why these two books seemed the same, in some way, is more than the semi-autobiographical, semi-historical content, and more than the desire to flee into nature: it is also, in a strong way, the tone. Both writers meander back and forth between their own lives and the lives of their subjects. Both writers also discuss strange physical reaction to natural surroundings, which seem to suggest a sort of madness that comes from leaving human society. For Laing, the effect of sunlight upon grass, for example, becomes a kind of blinding, golden glow; for Macdonald, bushes and trees become some kind of plantlike people who stand, motionless, in the background of her hawk-flying.

Both books have a slight feel of delirium to them (actually, Macdonald is diagnosed with depression at a late stage in her book, but seems to have expected the feelings she was having since they mirror White’s), and both suggest, in a way, a strange mixing of past and present in particular pastimes. They are both excellent – I have learned an awful lot about Sussex and about T. H. White from them, but most certainly not in a dry manner/ These are the sort of books that mix history, nature and the soul, and make the world seem a more interesting place when you emerge.

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