Saturday, 21 February 2015

from the bookshelf: H is for Hawk + The Wake

I sleep surrounded by books. They are stacked in papery towers on the floor, jammed two deep on the shelves, and even hold my bedside lamp up. They have covers of every colour; they are hardback, paperback; old books, new books; slipcase and  dust-jacket. Occasionally I'll pull one out to re-read a favourite chapter, leave it lying, and it will start a new tower of its own. In some ways it reminds me of the second-hand bookshop in Otago Lane - where the books are in teetering, tottering piles all around you, and the proprietor is hidden behind a stack of yellowing old periodicals.

My collection is added to in dribs and drabs - a birthday present here, a charity shop find there. Once a month there's an antiques fair in town with a particularly good  dangerous bookstall - I rarely come away without a book or three. And while I love the way old books look and feel, there is also something nice about a properly new book. I don't get them very often, maybe that's something to do with it.

I want to talk about two books that I've read in December and only got around to writing about now recently: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Judging by covers, they should have been very different - one a work of fiction telling the story of a man whose world was torn apart by war and invasion; the other part-biography of T. H. White, part-memoir detailing stages of grief, depression and acceptance after the loss of a father.

As I read, however, I began to see parallels between the two books. The main character in The Wake -Buccmaster- and the personality of T. H. White revealed by Macdonald share similarities. Both take to the woods and wild spaces - White as a self-imposed exile, and Buccmaster through the loss of his lands and status; an actual exile.  Both are cruel, and selfish, and concerned with subjugating others, be they human, beast or bird. Neither man really learns from his experiences, but instead continues blindly, painfully, through their existence in a world that they no longer seem to have a place in (although White did eventually become a good falconer).

By contrast, Helen Macdonald's own story is one of gradually re-learning how to function after her father's death. Like White, she describes her training of the goshawk with a kind of clarity-of-madness, that this -this- is the only way to cope with her world right now,  through taming this fierce,wild "person who was not human, but a bird".

Macdonald's writing also echoes that of White's - whether consciously or unconsciously. Compare this description of summer, "When the rain stopped the heat began. Dogs panted flat in the black shade under the limes, and the lawns in front of the house paled and burned to hay..." with White's portrayal of the hay-making in The Sword in the Stone: "Half of the right-hand field was fenced off for hay [...]The dogs moved about with their tongues hanging out, or lay panting in bits of shade."

For me, little moments jump out of the printed page and become sharp reality - such as when she takes her copy of White's The Goshawk off the shelf ("Red cloth. Silver-lettered spine.") and I realise that I have the same copy. When she goes to the doctor and finally says that she thinks she might be depressed, she says to herself, "It doesn't sound convincing." and I find myself nodding because I too, have sat in a doctor's office, my face scrunched up with tears and thought, 'Why am I here? I can't have depression, not really, I'm just pretending, aren't I?'

The main difference between Macdonald and White is in the way they view their respective goshawks. For White, Gos is something savage to be tamed; something to be conquered as early explorers conquered mountains. Macdonald  comes to view her training of Mabel as a form of partnership - accepting and embracing the goshawk's wildness, whereas White is frustrated and confused by his inability to tame Gos.

Macdonald, attempting to describe her searing grief, resorts to Old English (my reason for pointing this out will become clear later on): " 'Bereaved. Bereft. It's from the Old English bereafian, meaning 'to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.' " She sees her grief as wounds that will not heal, that she can't imagine ever healing. Yet at the end of the book she returns to her earlier metaphor, and turns it on its head, seeing scars on her hands - cuts that have at last healed over.

The goshawk's world that Macdonald describes is a visual, visceral one - peppered with gut-wrenching descriptions of hunting with the hawk: "Now the rabbit is dead...blood upwells as she breaks into its chest, and I cannot stop watching it."

The landscape descriptions are such that you can smell the rain and feel the uncomfortable prickle of twigs, whether it's a hard, flinty, pine-studded forest, or a field in the cool dampness of the early morning. You know that this is an author writing about places she loves, with an eye for small details.

Read this book if you've ever read The Sword in the Stone, or The Goshawk, or if you like falconry, or nature books. It's about a hawk called Mabel, what's not to like?


The rich, intensity of the natural world is also present in Kingsnorth's The Wake. But it's a world that is separated from the reader by a language barrier (now here's where the significance of the Old English comes in). The Wake is written in what Kingsnorth calls "a shadow tongue" - a synthetic version of Old English updated so that it's not (completely) incomprehensible to the reader. I realise that this may put many people off before they've even started. But in a way, that doesn't matter, because the book has been published by 'Unbound - a sort of fundraiser for books that authors want published, and that readers want to read. A 21st century form of 18th century subscription writing. So over 390 people pledged to buy this book before it was even written, and their names are included at the end of the book, along with a description of how Unbound works. I hadn't heard of the website before I read the book, and I was fascinated by the idea - I'm a big fan of webcomics, and many webcomic artists employ similar methods to publish hardcopies of their work, and I'd often wondered why no one seemed to be providing a place for writers to do the same.

I'm a bit of a word geek, and I love language, so I had no problems with tackling a book that is allergic to capitals, has a severe dislike of punctuation, and that starts like this: 'the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still'.

Fear not, there is a glossary at the back, although really the best way to tackle this is just to keep reading (reading aloud helps immensely) and let the words sort of swim around in your head until your perception changes and it makes sense. Some of the words are impossible to guess at, it's true, but most of the time everything sounds familiar, but different, if that makes sense. Kingsnorth has also included a note at the end, explaining how he set about developing the language he used.

This use of a language that is both "alien and familiar" (Kingsnorth is here referring to the landscape of the novel, but it works equally well for commenting on the text) allows us to really get into the head of the narrator - Buccmaster. Buccmaster is a 'socman' - a free farmer, with four oxen, around 60 acres of land, and two tenant farmers to work for him - as he constantly keeps reminding the reader. He has a seat on the local wapentac (shire court), a wife whose only fault is that of not always listening, and two fine sons. He inherited a sword from his grandfather, and something else too - a belief in the old gods, who sleep in a deep, dark pool of water hidden in the forest.

1066 - Battle of Hastings. It rattles off the tongue: Normans, Harald with an arrow in his eye, the Bayeux Tapestry...Bang, start of English history. But what was it like? And what happened afterwards? Kingsnorth's book gives us an idea of what life might have been like: confusing, scary and brutal. There's no way around it - Buccmaster is a brute: he beats his wife (although not as much as other husbands, he claims), he's proud, cruel, capricious and stubborn. I can't actually think of a single redeeming quality. Yet despite this, I couldn't stop reading. Once I got used to the language, it made me feel like I'd torn my way through a veil into this other world with my fingernails, and everything was very bright, and strange, and vivid. It's not an easy book to read, but it is worth reading, especially for passages like this one, where Buccmaster is remembering a time in his childhood when his grandfather took him to see the place of the old gods: 

'what is this grandfather i saes what is this holt under the water what world is this. i was thincan many things that afeart me then i was thincan this was the land where aelfs cums from or that ents or dweorgs or even that it was the hall under the mere in what grendel was lifan and that his mother was cuman for me under my lytel boat.'

The old gods, his grandfather tells him, are gods of the trees and the water - they are found in the forests and the fens. And it's these places, and these old gods, that Buccmaster turns to when his world collapses. A conquering army is ravaging through the land, and Buccmaster fiercely rebels against...everything, it feels like. I was prepared to feel sorry for Buccmaster, despite his (many) flaws, but he'd probably call me a 'fuccan ingenga' before slitting my throat and stealing my food. What becomes of Buccmaster? Well, you'll have to take a trip to Norman occupied England to find out.