Monthly Archives: December 2014

What a Carve Up! (The Winshaw Legacy) by Jonathan Coe (review)

Back in September, Guy (at His Futile Preoccupations) reviewed Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58, and in the comments thread a few of us expressed interest in joining a readalong of this author’s 1994 novel What a Carve Up! / The Winshaw Legacy. Marshalled by Seamus (at Vapour Trails), we settled on a December read with reviews to go up today.

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What a Carve Up! is a very skilful combination of two main narrative threads, the first of which centres on the infamous Winshaw family.

The prologue to the book opens with a mystery reaching back to the days of WWII when Godfrey Winshaw, a British pilot, was shot down by the Germans while on a top-secret mission over Berlin. His distraught and devoted sister, Tabitha, is convinced that her elder brother, Lawrence, is behind Godfrey’s death. In the frenzy that follows, Lawrence consigns Tabitha to a nearby asylum where she is to remain indefinitely, only to be granted a fleeting release for a family reunion some nineteen years later. The occasion is the fiftieth birthday of Mortimer, another brother to Tabitha and Lawrence, and the only other member of the Winshaw clan who appears to possess a decent set of moral values. (More on the rest of the Winshaws later.) Tragedy strikes the family once again as an intruder breaks into Winshaw Towers only to be killed in a violent altercation with Lawrence. There’s a suggestion that the intruder may have been out to get Lawrence, but the circumstances and motive surrounding the attack are far from clear.

These mysteries prove central to the Winshaw family history which brings me to the second strand in the story: that of a young writer named Michael Owen. The timeline shifts to 1990, and we discover that during the 1980s Michael was commissioned to document the official biography of the Winshaws (Tabitha, still residing in an institute for the actively insane, instigated the project despite the opposition of her family). With a sizeable chunk of the family’s history already documented, the manuscript has been festering for the past few years due to Michael’s withdrawal from society – the young writer has been suffering from depression due to difficulties with the book and a painful disagreement with his own mother. But in a chance meeting, Michael befriends and falls for his neighbour, Fiona, and with her encouragement he resumes work on the text in the summer of 1990.

Returning to the Winshaws now, here’s Michael as he reflects on his impressions of the family:

…for it was quite obvious to me, from the very beginning, that I was essentially dealing with a family of criminals, whose wealth and prestige were founded upon every manner of swindling, forgery, larceny, robbery, thievery, trickery, jiggery-pokery, hanky-panky, plundering, looting, sacking, misappropriation, spoliation and embezzlement. Not that the Winshaws’ activities were openly criminal, or indeed ever recognized as such by polite society. […] But because every penny of the Winshaw fortune […] could be said to have derived, by some route or other, from the shameless exploitation of  persons weaker than themselves, I felt that the word ‘criminal’ fitted the bill well enough… (pgs 88-89, Penguin Books)

Quite a bunch, then. As Michael picks up the threads of his research, Coe focuses on each of the Winshaw children in turn, a collection of power-hungry, self-advancing hypocrites who seem to have infiltrated every major area of public life. In fact, they appear to have ‘pretty well carved up the whole bloody country between them.’

The author uses a variety of different literary forms to reveal their stories. For instance, we get to know Henry, the politician, by way of a series of extracts from his diaries. Henry’s story commences with a few snippets from 1942 (the time of Godfrey’s death), but the majority of diary entries focus on his time in parliamentary circles during the 1970s and 1980s. Henry started political life as a Labour MP (it was his best chance of getting elected at the time), but underneath it all he’s a Tory at heart. Here’s an extract from Henry’s diary in 1982 which illustrates just how the Winshaws use their family connections to pull strings in pursuit of their aims. Thomas, Henry’s brother, is a merchant banker in every sense of the phrase:

Thomas has agreed to help us out with the flogging-off of [British] Telecom. Took a little persuading at first, but I convinced him that if he and the bank were going to prosper under Margaret’s government then they were going to have to be a little more robust in their business practices. It helped, of course, when I told him the kind of fees he could expect to collect. Also predicted that there was going to be any number of these sell-offs over the next few years, and if Stewards wanted a good slice of the action they should get in early. He asked me what else was going to come up in the near future and I told him that it was basically the lot: steel, gas, BP, BR, electricity, water, you name it. Not sure that he believed me about the last two. Just wait and see, I said. (pgs 134-135)

Henry’s diaries expose the key tenets of Thatcher’s political strategy: the privatisation of Britain’s core utilities; the introduction of business thinking and targets into the NHS; the attachment of a financial value to quality of life; the cutting back of the welfare state…many more. And we see how these policies touch the lives of real people as the financial constraints imposed on the NHS end in tragedy for one character in Coe’s story.

In another chapters we meet Hilary, the right-wing television-producer-turned-tabloid-journalist. Hilary writes a weekly column, entitled ‘PLAIN COMMON SENSE,’ providing a platform for her rants on ‘issues ranging from the welfare state and the international situation to the length of hemline sported by members of the royal family on recent social outings.’ Hilary’s chapter is peppered with newspaper reports and magazine articles, including a toe-curling Hello! feature designed to present the perfect public face. It’s all a façade of course, a mask to hide her train-wreck of a marriage and immoral lifestyle.

Then there’s Roddy, the art dealer, and Mark who deals in a more dangerous commodity by supporting Saddam Hussein in the development and stockpiling of illegal weapons. Perhaps the most horrific chapter of all is reserved for Dorothy: a merciless pioneer in the development of intensive farming methods, a woman with no regard for animal welfare. Coe doesn’t pull any punches in this section as he exposes the ‘solutions’ to the ‘problems’ Dorothy encounters in her efforts to maximise the yields and profits from rearing chickens and pigs. The details are truly shocking.

These characters are so vile and unlikeable that the reader might start to feel somewhat worn down by their nastiness. But Coe counterbalances this by adopting a satirical tone and by alternating the Winshaw chapters with Michael’s own story. As a narrator and as a character, Michael is very easy to engage with as he tries to get his life back on track by forming a connection with Fiona. And we will him on in his attempts to unravel the mysteries surrounding the Winshaw family history.

Michael is damaged, preoccupied with events and stories from his own past. In particular, he continues to reflect on memories of an ill-fated birthday visit to Weston-super-Mare and a trip to the cinema to see the 1961 comedy-horror film, What a Carve Up! Michael recalls being transfixed by Shirley Eaton, the film’s leading lady, but to his dismay his mother hauled him out of the cinema at a key moment: a scene where Kenneth Connor shies away from spending the night with Shirley despite his obvious attraction to her. As a result, Michael has developed a somewhat unhealthy fixation with the film, Shirley Eaton and the story behind the scene in question.

On a couple of occasions, Michael’s own life appears to mirror the crucial scene from the film, the one that has haunted him for many years. The first time it happens, Michael hesitates; like Kenneth Connor, he seems frightened of spending the night with an attractive woman. When the opportunity presents itself again, with a different woman this time, will Michael choose to commit or turn away once more? And as the novel progresses, Michael comes to realise that his connection to the Winshaws may run deeper than simply his role as their biographer. At one stage he ponders something terribly prescient:

I wondered what it would actually feel like, to be present at the unravelling of some terrible mystery and then to be suddenly confronted with the falseness of your own, complacent self-image as disinterested observer: to find, all at once, that you were thoroughly and messily bound up in the web of motives and suspicions which you had presumed to untangle with an outsider’s icy detachment. Needless to say, I could not imagine the circumstances in which such a thing might ever happen to me. (pg 303)

I thoroughly enjoyed What a Carve Up! It’s a wonderful blend of mystery, satire and socio-political commentary on the period, very cleverly constructed and plotted. Coe’s range is impressive as he switches between different forms and styles to present the story. For the most part, the political messages are conveyed in an engaging way, and it’s easy to forgive the occasional soap-box moment when the author’s heart is firmly in the right place.

The closing section feels like an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery as the key players in the story return to Winshaw Towers for the reading of a will. The ending is satisfying yet poignant, the mysteries and connections are unravelled, but to say any more would only spoil the surprises in store should you decide to read this novel for yourself.

This novel is ambitious and rich in detail, so much so that I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I’m looking forward to reading the reviews by Seamus, Guy and Kim – I’ll add links once they’re available. It’s also my book group’s choice for January, so plenty of discussion to come.

Click here to read Guy’s review and Seamus’s review.

What a Carve Up! is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Source: personal copy. Book 2/20 in my #TBR20.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (book review)

Ford Madox Ford opens The Good Soldier with the words: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’ The novel, written between 1913 and 1914, was originally called The Saddest Story, but given the political situation at the time, Ford’s publisher pressed for an alternative title (which came with its own problems). The original title might have been more fitting for a novel that features two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, for it is a very sad story indeed. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires, of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. It’s a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity.

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The Good Soldier is narrated by Dowell, who, as the novel opens, is looking back over the previous nine years. Dowell and his wife Florence are ‘leisured Americans’ living in Europe and spending the summer seasons in Nauheim, a German spa town. Here they meet and befriend Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, an English couple of a certain class. To all intents and purposes the Ashburnhams appear quiet and well-mannered; they are what Dowell believes the British would call ‘quite good people.’

By the time we reach the end of the novel’s first page, we learn that Florence Dowell is now dead, and there are hints of an affair having taken place between her and Edward Ashburnham – both are referred to as having ‘had a heart’ (this organ is an important recurring symbol in this book). What we don’t know is when or why Florence died. We can also assume Ashburnham is dead – use of the term had a heart’ indicates that he too is no longer alive.

Over the remainder of the novel, Dowell tries to relate the story of the two couples, but in so doing, he does not begin at the beginning. Instead, he imagines himself relaying the tale to a silent listener, going backwards and forwards in time over the previous nine or so years as one does when ‘one discusses an affair – a long, sad affair’:

One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognises that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. (pg. 134)

As a consequence of this approach and shifting timeline, particular events (or characters) are introduced briefly or alluded to but not necessarily developed at the time. We assume these things are significant, but as our impressions are incomplete, we are left anticipating a return to the scenes in question. As the novel moves forward, our perceptions of events and the characters themselves shift as new information is revealed. We are constantly reflecting and updating our impressions.

I’ll return to how my impressions of the main characters changed in a little while, but Ford’s approach to the novel also conveys the feeling that Dowell is trying to make sense of both the story and the nature of relationships between men and woman in general:

And there is nothing to guide us. And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations and activities? Or are meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness. (pg. 32)

Dowell’s initial impression of Edward Ashburnham is that of an upright and honourable man, ‘exactly the sort of chap that you could have trusted your wife with.’ At various points in the nine years in question, Ashburnham serves in the army, is a county magistrate and landowner – he believes in the good of the community. But Ashburnham is also a sentimentalist – much is made of this description, it recurs repeatedly. And this, together with his naivety, leads to his undoing in two critical areas: affairs of the heart and affairs of a financial nature.

Ashburnham is attractive and having fallen out of love with Leonora within a year or two of their marriage, he embarks upon a string of affairs:

I had forgotten about his eyes. They were as blue as the sides of a certain type of box of matches. When you looked at them carefully you saw that they were perfectly honest, perfectly straightforward, perfectly, perfectly stupid. But the brick pink of his complexion, running perfectly level to the brick pink of his inner eyelids, gave them a curious, sinister expression – like a mosaic of blue porcelain set in pink china. And that chap, coming into a room, snapped up the gaze of every woman in it, as dexterously as a conjurer pockets billiard balls. It was most amazing. (pg. 42)

A short-lived dalliance with the ruthless mistress of a Russian Grand Duke, coupled with a brief gambling spree at Monte Carlo, results in near financial ruin for Ashburnham. As a consequence, Leonora takes control of the couple’s finances.

At first, Leonora appears patient, principled and outwardly loyal to Edward. But as the story unravels, we learn more of her character – a different side is revealed, and we understand how mismatched she and Edward are as a couple. Edward is a Protestant, Leonora a Catholic. He is too sentimental for his own good, rather foolish, a sucker for a poor cause and a pretty woman. Beneath her exterior image, Leonora is cold, unsympathetic and controlling. She is an individualist whereas Edward is more democratic, a collectivist.

Alongside her control of the purse strings, Leonora also attempts to dictate Edward’s amorous affairs. The way Leonora sees it, if Edward has to play away, he may as well do so with someone she approves of, someone relatively stable – if nothing else it prevents him from running loose. There are times when she hopes Edward will return to her, but she would rather keep him occupied with an acceptable mistress than have him behave promiscuously.

However, once the Dowells arrive on the scene, it’s not long before Leonora realises that an affair between her husband and Florence is inevitable. And she knows this will create trouble for the two couples because when Edward embarks on an affair, he falls long and hard:

With Edward it was fatal. For, such was his honourable nature, that for him to enjoy a woman’s favours made him feel that she has a bond on him for life. That was the way it worked out in practice. Psychologically it meant that he could not have a mistress without falling violently in love with her. (pg. 120)

Turning our attention to the Dowells for a few moments, they have marital troubles of their own. Dowell is a man of ‘solid and serious virtues,’ and after a year or two of marriage to Florence, he falls out of love with her:

She became for me a rare and fragile object, something burdensome, but very frail. […] Yes, she became for me, as it were, the subject of a bet – the trophy of an athlete’s achievement, a parsley crown that is the symbol of his chastity, his soberness, his abstentions, and of his inflexible will. Of intrinsic value as a wife, I think she had none at all for me. I fancy I was not even proud of the way she dressed. (pg. 79)

At first, Florence is portrayed as a fragile creature with a weak heart, but as with other characters, we learn more about her as Dowell continues his story. There is little she would like more than to take her place as a lady of the English county society, and she harbours hopes of installing herself at Bramshaw, the Ashburnham’s residence. Dowell readily admits that Florence is a riddle to him, and he remains ignorant of Florence’s affair with Edward for quite some time – she is a flirt and a good actress with it.

That’s as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot save to say that there are further indiscretions and intrigues along the way. The Ashburnhams young ward, Nancy, also plays a significant role in the story. (It’s quite difficult to discuss the key events without revealing spoilers.)

The Good Soldier is a truly great novel. Ford’s prose is superb, and his descriptions of characters and their gestures are simply wonderful. It’s a very controlled piece of writing. The novel’s structure and shifting timeline requires the reader to play close attention to the text as the story is revealed in waves. There is much for the reader to process and assemble, and it’s a book I’d like to reread to gain a better understanding of the different layers and connections in the story.

I’ve talked a little about how my perceptions of the characters changed during the course of the book. In the beginning, I had Edward Ashburnham down as a cad and my sympathies were with Leonora. However, as I continued to read, I found some of my sympathy shifting from Leonora to Edward. Ultimately, I thought of Leonora as a rather cold and manipulative woman. She seemed well-equipped to deal with normality, but her behaviour became extreme when faced with the emotional dysfunction and duplicity of those around her. Despite Edward’s failings, his hopeless naivety and foolishness, he appeared powerless to quell his sentimental nature. Each character has their own flaws.

Dowell, the narrator, is left questioning it all and we’re left querying his reliability. There’s a wonderful passage in the opening pages where he questions the loss of permanence and stability in the couples’ lives. They appeared to be living their lives like a formal dance, a minuet, knowing exactly where they should go and what to do in every possible circumstance. All dancing together in perfect time with not a foot or hand out of place. This was how their lives appeared on the surface, but behind the façade all hell was breaking loose.

I’ll finish with a quote that for me seems to capture something of the feel of this novel:

I call this the Saddest Story, rather than ‘The Ashburnham Tragedy’, just because it is so sad, just because there was no current to draw things along to a swift and inevitable end. There is about it none of the elevation that accompanies tragedy; there is about it no nemesis, no destiny. Here were two noble people – for I am convinced that both Edward and Leonora had noble natures – here, then, were two natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heartaches, agony of the mind and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorate. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all a darkness. (pg 123)

I’ve been reading The Good Soldier alongside Emma at Book Around the Corner (Emma’s review is here) and Max at Pechorin’s Journal (Max’s review is here). Both bring different insights to the party.

My copy of The Good Soldier is published in the UK by Wordsworth Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 4/20 in my #TBR20.

Reading Bingo

You may have seen this Reading Bingo card on a few other sites as several other bloggers posted their choices in November. Emma’s post caught my eye, and following a conversation on her blog, I decided to have a bash. So, better late than never, here we go. Like Emma, I decided to focus on books read and reviewed in 2014:

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  1. Book with more than 500 pages: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard. My edition clocked in at 528 pages, and I found it pretty compelling stuff. This is the second in the series – I still need to read book one, A Death in the Family. Next year, hopefully.
  2. Forgotten classic: Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, one of my favourite books of the year. First published in 1962 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2012, it deserves to be better known.
  3. Book that became a movie: Double Indemnity by James M. Cain. Billy Wilder’s film would make my all-time top ten and the book didn’t disappoint.
  4. Published this year: Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, published in July 2014. A heartfelt and personal read for me, it’ll make my end-of-year list.
  5. Book with a number in the title: I’ll have to cheat a little here by going for My Brilliant Friend, book 1 in Elena Ferrante’s epic story of the relationship between two women set in 1950s/1960s Naples. Book 2 makes an appearance in category number 24.
  6. Written by someone under thirty: Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.
  7. Book with non-human characters: Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus features the mercurial Fevvers, a creature who claims to be part woman, part bird.
  8. A funny book: Where’s There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo, a playful take on the country-house murder mystery. Tremendous fun.
  9. Book by a female author: Plenty to choose from here, but a recent favourite is Transit by Anna Seghers. Another for my books-of-the-year list.
  10. Book with a mystery: The Art of Killing Well by Marco Malvaldi. In a similar vein to the Casares/Ocampo, this is another delightfully witty novella with a mystery at its heart.
  11. Novel with a one-word title: Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, I loved the mysterious, elusive tone of this novella.
  12. Book of short stories: The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman. These stories come in a variety of styles and moods. A great introduction to Neuman’s work.
  13. Free Square: I’ve chosen a favourite book from earlier this year. Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, an author I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I’d like to read another Hamilton next year.
  14. Book set on a different continent: Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. A subtle and delicate story of an unusual relationship between a woman and her former teacher, a beautiful story,
  15. Non-fiction: Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli. A short collection of essays, many of which focus on locations, cities and spaces. Highly recommended.
  16. First book by a favourite author: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. I’m cheating a bit as this was the first of Ferrante’s books to be translated into English (there’s an earlier novel, Troubling Love, which I hope to read next year).
  17. Book I heard about online: Several candidates here, but I’ve chosen Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas – I found this one through Stu’s blog. Another hugely enjoyable book, smart and engaging.
  18. A best-selling book: I don’t seem to read many best sellers, but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is pretty big and thought-provoking.
  19. Book based on a true story: Nagasaki by Eric Faye. A quick read and a rather disquieting one, all the more so considering it’s based on a true story reported in Japan in 2008.
  20. At the bottom of the tbr pile: I’m going to skip this one as I’d prefer not to single anything out.
  21. Book that a friend loves: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Recommended by a couple of friends and rightly so.
  22. Book that scares me: Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig, an unsettling, dreamlike collection of stories with a touch of David Lynch. This eerie collection might appeal to fans of Yoko Ogawa.
  23. Book more than ten years old: Quite a few contenders in this category, but I’ll pick The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, published in 1988. I plan to read more by Fitzgerald next year
  24. Second book in a series: The Story of a New Name, the second instalment in Elena Ferrante’s epic story of the relationship between two women set in 1960s Naples.
  25. Book with a blue cover: this one has ‘blue’ in the title too, The Blue Room by Hanne Ørstavik. Probably the most unnerving, slippery book I read this year – open to different readings/interpretations.

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I hope you enjoyed scrolling through my Reading Bingo choices. Have you read (or are you thinking if reading) any of these books?

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past. (pg. 16, Jonathan Cape)

H is for Hawk is one of those rare books that come along every so often that have the potential to resonate with many readers, perhaps even changing their outlook on life in some small way. An ingenious blend of memoir and nature writing, an intelligent, multi-layered and humane work, H is for Hawk is one of my favourite books of the year.

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When Helen Macdonald, a Cambridge historian, writer and illustrator, loses her father to a heart attack, she is devastated. Throughout her life, she has looked up to her dad with the two Macdonalds sharing several qualities and personality traits. Helen, a watcher by nature, is fascinated by birds of prey and an experienced trainer of falcons. Her father, a press photographer by profession, grew up watching birds of a different kind. By spending his childhood spotting and recording details of planes, he honed the observational skills and patience that would serve him well in his future career as a photojournalist.

Broken by grief and a deep sense of emptiness, Helen Macdonald latches on to the one passion she believes may help her fill the void left by the loss of her father: a quest to raise and train a young goshawk. Despite her vast experience with falcons, this endeavour represents quite a challenge for Macdonald as goshawks come with a reputation for being notoriously difficult to tame. Nevertheless, she presses ahead and takes delivery of the bird on a Scottish quayside for £800 in twenty-pound notes in a scene that she readily admits feels ‘like a drugs deal.’

When she arrives back in Cambridge, Macdonald fills the freezer with hawk food, unplugs the phone and begins the process of bonding with the hawk whom she names Mabel. (The name derives from the Latin ‘amabilis,’ meaning ‘lovable’, or ‘dear.’) It’s an intense process, one that requires great patience, delicacy and solitude, and in an effort to gain Mabel’s trust, there is a sense that Macdonald must make herself seem invisible. Only once Mabel is focused on eating can Macdonald remind the bird of her presence. As long as she takes it slowly, very slowly indeed, the decisive moment will come:

Regarding the room with simple curiosity, she turned her head and saw me. And jumped. Jumped exactly like a human in surprise. I felt the scratch of her talons and her shock, too, cold and electric. That was the moment. Until a minute ago I was so terrifying I was all that existed. But then she had forgotten me. Only for a fraction of a second, but it was enough. The forgetting was delightful because it was a sign that the hawk was stating to accept me. But there was a deeper, darker thrill. It was that I had been forgotten (pg. 73)

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald chooses to deal with the process of bereavement by training a goshawk. There is a sense that she is trying to rebuild herself by investing her energy and love in the hawk. A deep relationship develops as she watches Mabel (like a hawk!) and becomes attuned to the smallest of cues and changes in the bird’s posture, feathers and eye movements. All of these actions act as signals thereby enabling Helen to read and anticipate the bird’s mood. As the days pass, Mabel comes to represent everything Macdonald wishes to be, self-assured and released from the weight of grief:

I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

I was turning into a hawk. (pg. 85)

When the time comes to take her hawk outside (and unhooded) for the first time, Macdonald also appears to be seeing the world afresh as if she is viewing everything through Mabel’s eyes. We follow Helen as she introduces Mabel to a new environment and teaches her to take flight, an activity that emphasises the bird’s capacity for living in the present moment, something Macdonald wishes she could mirror.

H is for Hawk is a multi-layered book, and alongside her quest to train Mabel, Macdonald reflects on the life of T.H. White, author of the Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King. White also penned The Goshawk, a book that captured his own attempts – ill-judged in this instance – to tame and train a young German goshawk named Gos. It’s a text that Macdonald read as a young girl with a developing interest in birds. This could have been jarring, but she skilfully weaves these observations on White’s troubled existence (and passages of White’s writing) alongside her own story to form a richly textured and connected narrative.

In an attempt to suppress his homosexuality, White had tried to conform to the conventional rules of society at the time, to fit in with everyone else, but to no avail. His years as a schoolmaster at Stowe and a fear of war had pushed him to breaking point, and he saw Gos as the living embodiment of all the dark desires he had tried to repress for years:

He had refused humanity in favour of hawks, but he could not escape himself. Once again White was engaged in a battle to civilise the perversity and unruliness within himself. Only now he had put those things in the hawk, and he was trying to civilise them there. He found himself in a strange, locked battle with a bird that was all the things he longed for, but had always fought against. It was a terrible paradox. A proper tragedy. No wonder living with Gos brought him nearly to madness. (pg. 80)

Throughout the course of H is for Hawk, we also learn a great deal about hawks, the history, heritage and myths surrounding falconry, and a sprinkling of the terminology used to describe goshawks. For instance, we discover how a hawk will ‘bate’ by exhibiting ‘a headlong dive of rage and terror’ as it leaps from the fist or perch in wild bid for freedom; how a goshawk in a state of readiness to hunt is in ‘yarak’; how its prey is termed ‘quarry.’

The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. Ultimately though, it is Macdonald’s relationship with Mabel which forms the beating heart of this book. Once the bird takes flight, the sense of relief Helen feels when Mabel returns to her fist is like a balm, something to help ease the pain of grief.

Those of you who know me well may realise I had to pick the right moment to read H is for Hawk – I’ve wanted to read it for months, but I knew it would be an emotional read for me. Here’s the thing…both my parents died suddenly: my father when I was eleven, my mother fifteen years later. I can’t recall much about the years following my father’s death (there was school to deal with), but I was in a very dark place for a year two after my mother died of a brain haemorrhage. I’m not saying that training a hawk would have helped me to cope with my own grief crisis, but I can relate to Helen’s need to have a focal point in her life. Something to help her through that period when she probably felt numb and gripped by a strange kind of madness (she talks about this in the book). I think this is why H is for Hawk resonated so strongly with me as I could relate parts of it to my own life experience. 

Irrespective of this, H is for Hawk is a wonderful book, and I’m glad I finally found the right time to read it. I’d like to finish on an upbeat note, so here’s a passage on Mabel at the height of her powers in flight:

I let her go. Her tactical sense is magnificent. She drops from the fist, and sets off, no higher than a hand’s width above the ground, using every inch of the undulating relief as cover, gathering speed until the frosty stubble winks and flashes under her, and she curves over the top of the hill. Then she sets her wings and glides, using gravity and momentum to race downhill, flash up over the top of the hedge in a sudden flowering of cream and white, a good hundred yards away, and then continue down the hedge’s far side, invisible to me. I’m running, all this time, my feet caked with mud, feeling earthbound but transported at the same time. (pgs. 234 – 5)

Claire at Word by Word, Naomi at The Writes of Women, Belinda at Bii’s Books and Eric at Lonesome Reader have also reviewed (and loved) this book.

H is for Hawk is published in the UK by Jonathan Cape. Source: personal copy.

The Tunnel by Ernesto Sábato

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to read a few books to fit with Richard’s celebration of Argentine (and Uruguayan) Literature of Doom which has been running from September to December. The last of my choices is Ernesto Sábato’s existential classic, The Tunnel (tr. by Margaret Sayers Peden) – it’s a book I picked up in July after reading Bellezza’s review for Spanish Lit Month.

First published in Argentina in 1948 and translated into English in 1988, The Tunnel is narrated by Juan Pablo Castel, a painter imprisoned for the murder of a woman named María. Castel has documented the story of his crime and promises us a truthful and objective account. He hopes that someone will understand him, ‘even if it is only one person.’ Tragically, there was one person who could have understood Castel, and that was María, the very person he killed.

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And so Castel takes us back in time to the day when he first encountered María. Whilst attending an art exhibition, he spots a woman (who turns out to be María) gazing intently at a particular section of one of his own paintings: the image of a solitary woman staring at the sea, her figure framed in a tiny window. No one else appears to have noticed this crucial detail, only María, and consequently, Castel is immediately attracted to her. She disappears into the crowd before he can establish contact, but she continues to haunt his memories during the months that follow.

Castel dreams of a chance encounter with this mysterious woman, his head addled with thoughts of how to handle the situation should he meet her in the street. A nervous shy individual by nature, Castel is terrified by the prospect of striking up a conversation with an unknown woman so he rehearses various scenarios in his mind. And it is these thoughts which first alert us to the signs of paranoia in his narrative.

Eventually, he spots María in the street and follows her, and after a couple of excruciating (and somewhat terrifying) false starts, they begin an affair. In the belief that this woman is somehow essential to his existence, Castel quickly becomes obsessed with María pleading with her to stay with him. Shortly afterwards he discovers that she is married, and his mind goes into overdrive mode: if María is cheating on her husband while seeing Castel, what’s stopping her from seeing other lovers, too?

Then, what was the meaning of her comment ‘When I close the door they know I am not to be disturbed? Apparently it meant she often closed the door to talk on the telephone. But it was not likely she would close the door for trivial conversations with family friends: the reasonable deduction was that it was to have conversations like ours. But that meant there were others like myself in her life. How many? And who? (pg. 48, Penguin Classics)

As Castel experiences a growing desire to possess María exclusively, his behaviour becomes increasingly demented. He constantly questions María about her feelings for him, and signs of a deeper psychotic illness emerge as he accuses the woman of cruelly deceiving her husband for many years:

How many times had that damned split in my consciousness been responsible for the most abominable acts? While one part of me strikes a pose of humaneness, the other part cries fraud, hypocrisy, false generosity. While one incites me to insult a fellow being, the other takes pity on him and accuses me of the very thing I am denouncing. While one urges me to see the beauty of the world, the other points out its sordidness and the absurdity of any feeling of happiness. It was too late, in any case, to heal the wound I had inflicted (this was assured with muffled, receding, smug malevolence by the other ‘I,’ who by now had been pushed back into his cave of filth); it was irreparably late. (pg. 78-79)

As the story progresses, Castel convinces himself that María is harbouring further dark secrets. He believes she is seeing another man, and as she repeatedly flees to her cousin Hunter’s country estate, Hunter becomes the prime suspect. With his suspicions mounting, Castel settles on the view that María has been lying to him, ‘feigning emotions and sensations’ and weaving a web of deceit.

The Tunnel is a terrifically chilling account of obsessive love, an insight into the mind of a man cut adrift from reality by irrational levels of doubts and paranoia. Sábato’s prose is very precise and controlled giving Castel’s inner voice a rational and logical quality which provides a striking contrast to his manic behaviour. In fact, there are times when it becomes easy to forget that we are listening to the account of a murderer.

This novel isn’t all doom and gloom, mind. There are several passages of mordant humour, including an acerbically comic scene in which Castel attempts to retrieve from the post office a registered letter he dashed off to María in a fit of pique. And here’s Castel on his fellow artists and art critics, clearly the lowest of the low:

More than any other, however, I detest groups of painters. Partly, of course, because painting is what I know best, and we all know that we have greater reason to detest the things we know well. But I have still another reason: THE CRITICS. They are a plague I have never understood. (pg. 13)

We know from the novella’s opening sentence that Castel kills María, and yet the story remains highly compelling. We want to know why Castel commits this act, what thoughts or images run through his mind in the immediate run-up to the murder. We understand that is Castel trapped in a tunnel of loneliness, dark and solitary, the one in which he has spent his childhood, his youth, his whole life. His obsession with María leads him to believe that she is travelling in a parallel tunnel adjacent to his own and that their paths will meet at some point in time. But in the end, Castel realises María is living behind an impenetrable wall; she has become someone he ‘could see but not hear or touch.’

I’ll finish with a couple of favourite quotes from this haunting novella as they typify this sense of alienation:

And in one of those transparent sections of the stone wall I had seen this girl and had naïvely believed that she was moving in a tunnel parallel to mine, when in fact she belonged to the wide world, the unbound world of those who did not live in tunnels; and perhaps out of curiosity she had approached one of my strange windows, and had glimpsed the spectacle of my unredeemable solitude, or had been intrigued by the mute message, the key of my painting. And then, while I kept moving through my passageway, she lived her normal life outside, the exciting life of people who live outside, that curious and absurd life in which there are dances and parties and gaiety and frivolity. (pg. 133)

‘Was our life nothing more than a sequence of anonymous screams in a desert of indifferent stars?’ (pg. 35)

ALOD 2014

The Tunnel is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.