Last Christmas, I bought my husband a book about a woman who buys a bird and attempts to train it. Not my kind of thing. I’m drawn to Gone Girl. The Narrow Road to the North. I Pilgrim. Even Bryony Gordon’s The Wrong Knickers. But he loved it so much, I had to give it a try.
But this bird, reader, is no African Grey in an elaborate cage, no bored budgie pecking at a brass bell.
This is a creature like a ‘griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary‘. When her beloved countryside-loving father dies, and she is floored by grief, Helen Macdonald buys a goshawk for £800 and attempts to train it in the way medieval lords and ladies did. As well as a suspense story – can she possibly succeed – it is a spiritual journey about love and loss.
As a bonus, it is also a tutorial on how to write beautifully. Many of us are so petrified of writing ‘purple prose’ that we risk becoming terse. (See our post on 24 November) This does a disservice to the tremendous potential of the English language.
Here is Mabel, looking out of her box on a Scottish quayside for the first time: ‘Her beak is open, her hackles raised, her wild eyes were the colour of sun on white paper, and they stared because the whole world had fallen into them at once.’
Macdonald sees Mabel as reptilian, ‘the lucency of her pale, round eyes…the waxy, yellow skin about her Bakelite-black beak…half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and brass.’
Some deer in the forest: ‘…ankle their way out of the brush to graze.’
Walking in the wood, she sees ‘a little sprig of mahonia growing out of the turf, its oxblood leaves like buffed pigskin.’
Cut back on your description? Not if you write like Helen Macdonald who is, one discovers, not only a writer but a poet.
Do put this book on your Christmas Wish List.