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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

The remarkable story of Mabel the hawk, another fine Sarah Waters, and looking into Nicolson’s Homer

Maggie Fergusson | September/October 2014

NATURE H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, Cape, hardback, out now. Dinosaurs, ponies, birds of preyall were childhood obsessions of Helen Macdonald, but only one persisted. When her father died, with neither a partner nor children to console her, she exchanged a fistful of £20 notes for a young goshawk on a Scottish quayside, as if buying drugs. Filling her freezer with meat, she unplugged the phone and set about teaching her fractious, cherished protégée to hunt. This extraordinary book covers far more than the training of Mabel (a hawk’s ability, they say, is in inverse proportion to the ferocity of its name). It’s a searing study of bereavement and a meditation on man’s place in the natural world, shot through with reflections on the tortured novelist T.H. White and his masterpiece “The Goshawk”. Written with vigour, leavened with humour, it doesn’t just sing, it flies.

FICTION The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, Virago, hardback, out Aug 28th. While other writers have been busy plunging readers into the trenches, Sarah Waters takes us instead to the aftermath of the Great War, and a silent, now servantless villa in Camberwell, south London. “Capital-letter notions” of right and wrong have lost their clarity, and Frances Wray, a spinster living with her grieving mother, is rudderless. Should she cling to the past, like a snake re-entering “a desiccated skin”, or follow her heart as a lesbian and freethinker? When she takes in unhappily married lodgers, the question answers itself, with grave consequences. Waters’s page-turning prose conceals great subtlety. Acutely sensitive to social nuance, she keeps us constantly alert to the pain and passion churning under the “false, bright” surface of gentility. From a novelist who has been shortlisted for the Booker three times, this is a winner.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, Faber, paperback, out now. If love involves supporting others in fulfilling their 
desires, do you help your suicidal sister to die? That’s the question around which Miriam Toews’s sixth, partly autobiographical, novel revolves. Elf is a gifted pianist with a devoted husband, Yoli a single mother whose life is shambolic, and it is Elf who longs to die. Toews is astute about the way family members assume roles: in response to Elf’s despair, Yoli becomes the joker and coper, even when she’s falling apart. She knows how, in response to tragedy, survivors circle their wagons, reconfiguring their lives to make room for their wounds. She understands that letting go of grief can be more painful than grief itself. But her real triumph here is to convey her wisdom in a way that is neither mawkish nor flippant, but often humorous and oddly life-affirming.

SHORT STORIES Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash, Simon & Schuster, hardback, out now. Loneliness gusts through this collection, though the characters Tom Barbash creates are rarely alone. Instead, commonplace agonies—divorce, infidelity, bereavement—have cut them adrift. A young historian, abandoned by his wife, presses ahead with their annual Macy’s Day Parade party. A dumped girlfriend waits with “soul-shrivelling restlessness” for her ex to call. Children of broken marriages bottle resentment of their step-parents with impotent rage. The 13 stories are set in New York or rural New England, and Barbash’s uncluttered prose creates a powerful sense of place. But more than setting, or even suffering, he’s fascinated by the masks we put on to persuade ourselves we’re OK. This allows him to introduce elements of dark humour, as he leads you through ever-descending circles of 21st-century hell.

LITERARY CRITICISM The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson, William Collins, hardback, out now. For Adam Nicolson, schoolboy Homer was a grind. Picking out the meaning line by line from the Greek, he felt “as if the poems were written in Maths”. Then, ten years ago, he read a translation by the American poet-scholar Robert Fagles, and he was bouleversé. Here was an epic communicating urgently, across a chasm of thousands of years, what it means to be alive on Earth. The “Iliad” and “Odyssey” became his “scripture”. Nicolson himself has a tinge of a 21st-century Odysseus. Whether sailing through heaving seas, or mulling the complex flavours of a single Greek word, he is a master storyteller. Keats’s discovery of Chapman’s Homer becomes, in his hands, thrilling drama. Nicolson’s impassioned weaving of literary history, archaeology and memoir leaves you asking, as he did, “Why has no one told me about this before?”

POETRY The Stairwell by Michael Longley, Cape, paperback, out now. Seamus Heaney called Michael Longley a “custodian of griefs and wonders”, and this tenth collection is replete with both. It’s framed by death. In the first poem Longley chooses his funeral music; on the last page he presses the button at his twin brother’s cremation. Yet what comes between teems with a love of life, sharpened by Longley’s sense of nearing the end. Days after you read the poems, images still glow in the mind: icicles in the fetlocks of a Clydesdale “tinkling at each earthy stride”, first-world-war tommies coming home with lizard-orchid seeds stuck to their muddy boots“dead soldiers/Returning, adhesive souls”. Longley is not ready for the grave. He yearns instead “to fall asleep for ever/With the life force snoozing in my breast”.

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