The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent. It was about to begin.
I couldn’t put the same title on this as for the film (Favourite) because it wasn’t so much my favourite book as the most important book I read in the year, and I read a good few. And I write about it not so much because I enjoyed it but because it consumed me. It chewed me up and spat me out.
There’s a famous scene with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in the 1997 American film As Good as It Gets. Everybody knows it. They are in a restaurant and Jack says: ‘You make me want to be a better man.’ And it’s Jack, being Jack and I know, I know but, still. I rate books not so much any more as how good they are or how much I enjoyed them but how much they make me want to be a better writer – or a writer at all.
And H is For Hawk by Helen McDonald tops the lot in 2015. Now it wasn’t even published in 2015, it was published in 2014, but I read it early in 2015 when I was recuperating from surgery (nothing major – an elective repair of my collar bone). So maybe the timing was a factor, I don’t know.
And I’m not going to review it, There are plenty reviews out there and here is the best one I’ve seen, if you are interested, and here’s a plug for the great Maria Popova and her wonderful blog: Brain Pickings. Click here for the review – or maybe it’s more a reflection. But I can’t do better than quote her (Maria’s) opening paragraph:
Every once in a while — perhaps thrice a lifetime, if one is lucky — a book comes along so immensely and intricately insightful, so overwhelming in beauty, that it renders one incapable of articulating what it’s about without contracting its expansive complexity, flattening its dimensional richness, and stripping it of its splendor. Because it is, of course, about everything — it might take a specific something as its subject, but its object is nothing less than the whole of the human spirit, mirrored back to itself.
And of course it ticks boxes for me and it may not for you – beware: no refunds, no whinging, NONE. It’s about our relationship with nature (sort of), birds to be specific (yay). Raptors – The Keith Richards of birds – to be more specific again. Goshawks – The Keith Richards of raptors – to be even more specific. And it’s slow and detailed and reflective but also moving, and it’s beautifully written and it’s truthful and searing and all those things. But as Maria says: it’s more. And to even mention the topic of grief is to contract and flatten and strip it. It’s about the human spirit – mirrored back to itself. See? See?
It contains a line that struck me deeply: ‘We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.’ And this book made me think about the reckoning – that’s for sure. And it scared the hell out of me. Or woke me up. I can’t wait to read it again – when my brother returns it – YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!
And now whenever I see a long tailed tit, I think of a cotton bud with wings, and that that is so fucking cool. Thank you Helen.