review written & read live on the bookshow by Corinna christopher 4th Dec 2014
This book won the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction in 2014 – a most prestiguous accolade, and is a lyrical memoir by Helen Macdonald with beautiful imagery of nature throughout.
I was completely drawn into the world of falconry. It is set in and around Cambridge.
Helen's father a respected photojournalist, had just died and she is finding his loss difficult to live with. One of a twin who did not survive at birth she always thought this fact resulted in her obsession with falconry and from a young child she immersed herself in this world. Goshawks were the holy grail of birdwatchers and though persecuted in the past there are now about 450 pairs in the u.k. Falcons are the most perfect embodiment of power and speed, but Goshawks were different, ruffians, murderous, difficult to tame, sulky and foreign.
Helen decided to purchase a 10 week old Goshawk and the book is about how she trains this female bird. A grandmotherly name of Mabel was chosen. She says that Mabel was everything she wanted to be, solitary, self-possessed, free from grief and numb to the hurts of human life. With the help of a book by T.H. White written in the last century she intersperses much wisdom about the Goshawks and also calls upon a friend Stuart who is a raptor expert and lives nearby.
Helen describes Mabel “ a conjuring trick, a reptile, a fallen angel, a griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary, something bright and distant, like gold falling through water”
The occasion when Helen first flies Mabel free was heart-stopping even with a small bell attached to her tail and a tiny radio transmitter. Eventually she allows Mabel to fly anywhere as she is building up a landscape of magical places. She also records other wildlife, hare, fallow deer, pheasants, partridges, squirrels and rabbits.
Mabel and Helen's relationship is not without its ups and downs and many times her talons drew blood. However, a deep love was formed and she was able to call upon this emotion when delivering a eulogy at her father'' memorial service.
At the end of the book Helen thanks Mabel who taught her how to fly in a world after her father is gone. Mabel lived for several seasons and then sadly died from an airborne fungus.
For anyone who loves the natural world this is a lovely book with descriptions emanating from the heart and soul. It is a part memoir, part naturalist diary.