I’ve just read two rather intense books in quick succession: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. The first was intense with a wild explosion of grief, set in a whirl of feathers and talon swipes from a goshawk and the second was intense with overwhelming and long-lasting despair, self-doubt and strange things happening between dreams and hallucinations.
There is a fairly straightforward and moderately harrowing depiction of her struggling with depression in her grieving process (moderately harrowing only for the reader, obviously). While well handled, this is by no means an original plot. However, the narrative also includes much else.
There is a fairly detailed analysis of the life and works of T. H. White best known for having written the Sword in the Stone, an Arthurian legend type book and the story that led to Disney’s film of that name. He was also an amateur austringer – one of many new words I learnt – it’s the equivalent of a falconer for hawks. Just quite how amateur is a key element of Macdonald’s novel, and one feels that a sub-text is the author’s devout hope that at least she made a better job of training her hawk than the troubled White did. I found that part of the book quite compelling, the analyses Macdonald offers all seem very pertinent to me.
Now, I have to say that in the animal realm, I would instinctively put “birds”, as a species and in their immense and rich diversity, right up there at the top of my favourites list. But Macdonald definitely won’t encourage me to take up the ancient art of training hawks. First of all, I guess that I object on principle: while many animals are impressively effective killing machines, these days, man doesn’t need to harness those incredible skills to help him with his own hunting. And I’m not a totally naïve supporter of the no-hunting lobby: I readily acknowledge that many modern day hunters are more sensitive to nature than most people. But my basic point is that where we don’t need to hunt for sustenance, we shouldn’t. (Let people who like getting up early and being cleverer than wild beasts at tracking and in their observation skills join the hordes of photographers. Expensive toys for boys – and girls who are so minded, of course – to purchase and plenty of bragging opportunities with the perfect shot of a rarely seen animal caught just at the right moment should compensate for bloodlust, right? Oh, dream on, Wilkinson…) And I definitely wouldn’t have anything like the patience and dedication needed to train a bird of prey.
So I don’t altogether buy the being an austringer for a glimpse of the meaning of life thing (the author is not that simplistic, but there is definitely an element of finding some salvation in this challenging human being-animal interaction). I did however enjoy learning more about it, a bit about its history, a bit of its rich lexicon, and I was rooting for the author as she made headway with Mabel, her hawk.
Macdonald ends her novel with a description of her gradual emergence from the depressive episode; all that remains is to wonder in what proportion her hawk, her friends and family and she herself helped that burden to be lifted from her.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a quite slow-paced, dreamy novel. Dreams are an important feature of the book but I mean “dreamy” in a wider sense: there is a lot of drifting, a feeling of unreality, the sense that time and place are very secondary concepts indeed.
But we do travel a lot in Tsukuru’s head and it’s an interesting place to discover, even though he himself would disagree about that. When the novel starts, Tsukuru can only think of death, after a traumatic episode at high school where he is one of a close group of five friends.
He sees himself as average, boring and colorless, a self-perception emphasised by his four friends all having names with a reference to colour. Three boys and two girls, they are the five fingers of one hand and pretty inseparable, a tight unit. Until Tsukuru follows his ambition to make things, in his case, railway stations and moves to Tokyo, leaving the rest of the group in their native town of Nagoya.
Distance is initially no hindrance to friendship but out of the blue and with absolutely no explanation given, Tsukuru is totally ostracized by the other four. He essentially gets on with life but there are very dark thoughts indeed in his mind for many months, and in fact, for a large part of a novel. He eventually makes a new friend in Tokyo but after a strange semi-hallucinatory experience, that too comes to an abrupt end. The new girlfriend, a practical woman, encourages him to lay ghosts to rest and takes action to help him find out the truth. The last part of the novel is taken with his discovering some shocking facts and, in a way, coming to terms with them.
Plot summary aside, I can say that I admire the telling of this mind journey and the description of conflicting perceptions: is it a dream, is it reality? Is he the boring one in the group or is he the glue that binds the (lost) circle of friendship? I must also say that I wanted a different ending but I guess that it fits with the general sense of being in limbo throughout the book …