It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book as unsettling as this one.
Things start off in familiar territory: a death pushes the author to pull back into themselves and into nature. The descriptions of landscape are run through with tree names and cloud names and bird names that I don’t know and that provoke the kind of envy that the best nature writing often does. I want to know these names and to see these distinctions within “tree” and “cloud” and “bird” that I’m currently blind to. Falconry is romantic and fascinating and the fact that the author has spent her life learning and practicing it is exciting. The only distractions here are the detours into T. H. White’s efforts to train his own hawk. They feel awkward and I petulantly wish they’d stop: he is not a pleasant figure and his misery and his miserable efforts are so less interesting than MacDonald’s work training her own hawk, Mabel. I want more descriptions of hedgerows and underbrush.
But then slowly things go off the rails and I realize I am not in the book I thought I was. MacDonald is not a literary monk from the wild world of deep feelings sending the rest of us reports laden with small nuggets of wisdom to be underlined and quoted. Neither is Mabel a symbol or guide. She’s a bird, and she can’t do anything to keep MacDonald from tumbling out of control.
And MacDonald does tumble out of control, losing her job, her home. She stops talking to friends and family. Day after day after day, she runs through fields and woods with Mabel hunting and killing rabbits, killing pheasant. The text holds things together for a long time, but by the mid-point it’s clear that our guide in this story, the woman with the names of trees and birds at her fingertips, is losing herself to darkness, and she’s bringing us with her.
Miraculously, the book ends in a better place with feet unsteadily but certainly on the ground. Beauty and light are seeping back into the sky, but things aren’t the same. We’ve read an account of deep wounds closing into aching scars. There’s beauty in the history they hold, but it is an earthy, difficult beauty that smells faintly of the grave. And it’s caught under my nails.