Strewn willy-nilly about my flat is a rather scattershot collection of half-read books on everything from Charles Manson to natural history. I finally managed to tick-off two books in the latter category this week so I thought what better time to start the first in what may or may not be a series of very subjective book reviews. The wind this week has rather put paid to bat, bee and butterfly surveys and election fever is consumed all but the smuttiest corners of the internet* so I’ve had a chance to catch up on H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Hedge Britannia by Hugh Barker.
I began the Award-Winning, Thesaurus-bothering titan that is H is for Hawk with some expectation but perhaps expecting something else (ok, I didn’t exactly read up on its contents beforehand). It has been hugely well received and having finished it, I’m still not entirely sure what I feel about it. There were long stretches of descriptive, showy prose that I skipped over as I often felt these weren’t telling me much. There’s a chance that I just felt stupid and jealous of the obvious talent and literary dexterity on display, and there is also a chance that I’m just an emotionally dead robot.
What to take away from it? Well, the parts about Hawks are great. The rest, and the overly verbose, portentous, pretentious simile-fest style, I am less enamoured with. I’ll admit, I am, on occasion and though I try to deny it, capable of drifting from Green into Purple without bothering to consult any of the intermediary colours, but this is just obscene. For christsake, she even uses the word Palimpsest. Palimpsest!
Maybe my stop/start reading style, ‘reading pile’ method didn’t allow me to pick up the rhythms and themes and stick with them. More than likely I was caught out by the description of H is for Hawk as non-fiction – the tone, structure, lyricism and I would venture even some of the content (come on, no one has dreams quite that crystal-clear and overbearingly symbolic) are deeply indebted to fictitious styles and tropes. I suspect if I had got onboard with that earlier, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more.
There were lines I couldn’t really wrap my head around:
(I had) ‘…assumed it was a fear of female emancipation that had made Goshawks so terribly frightening to later falconers.’
And passages that others clearly enjoyed but were a little too florid for me:
‘The argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fine clay. Drifts of chalk beneath. Yellowhammers chipping in the hedges. Cumulus rubble. The maritime light of this island, set as it is under a sky mirrored and uplit by sea’
But enough about the style, what about the substance? That is, after all, what I crave. The book clearly has managed to subconsciously inveigle some knowledge of falconry into my brain, particularly some of the rather wonderful words associated with it (yarak being a favourite). I also had a pressing desire to read more TH White.
I clearly have a predilection for the concise and informative over the lyrical and emotive, which is perhaps why I had much more fun with Hedge Britannia. This was an inspired purchase.
Where H is for Hawk strives for the poetic, the noble, the emotive and lyrical, Hedge Britannia aims to inform you about a subject you didn’t know, and could never have imagined, you would be interested in, and all laced with heavy doses of self-deprecation. There are so many random digressions into social history, literature and even at, at one point, anime. There’s also more information on hedging species, techniques and types than you could shake a stick at. Though what you would hope to achieve by doing that, I have no idea.
For both of these books I suspect my enjoyment depended a lot on my own mood and circumstances at the time, and it’s because of that subjectivity I’ve titled this very definitely not a book review. I suspect I’m being a little unfair on H is for Hawk, but then if you read it sat on the 319 overlooking bus-stops strewn with desiccated goat-legs, you might struggle to enjoy the expansive descriptions of glorious landscapes and rolling countryside.
*I’m presuming no one is really reading a niche wildlife blog right now