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Review: Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (2020)

In an introduction video to Vesper Flights, available on YouTube, Helen Macdonald states that her latest book represents a ‘love for the glittering world of non-human life around me’ and that the short essay form can create a ‘fierce, concentrated attention’ that longer works may not achieve. Judging by our review, she is successful on both counts.

This is a collection of essays, some of which previously appeared in The New York Times and the New Statesman and elsewhere, by the author of the award-winning H is for Hawk, her very personal account of her attempt to train a goshawk, while struggling with her grief after the loss of her father.

She is a writer and naturalist, amongst other things, and the natural world, and our human interaction with it, is the principal subject matter of the essays, but they also give us a little glimpse of her own inner life, and her rather solitary and troubled childhood and youth.

Although fauna, and especially birds, are her main interest, the essays cover a very wide range of topics, including politics, philosophy, history, and culture, all in the context of our relationship with the natural world, and what it means for us, both literally and symbolically.

She is a unique writer, at least in my experience, combining a profound interest in her subject with a great gift for imaginative and descriptive writing. Her accounts, for example, of her strange first encounter with a wild boar, or of a walk through winter woods, or of her experience in witnessing an eclipse, are vivid and powerful. She also amazed me with her description of the astonishing collective navigational feats performed by swifts during their ‘vesper flights’ high in the atmosphere.

It’s interesting that she finds connections in her essays between her experiences of the natural world and the political events taking place at the time of writing. Some of the essays date from the summer of 2016, at the time of the Brexit referendum, and others during the Trump presidency. Her political concerns surface frequently, most memorably in comparing the search for safe roosting locations for migrating cranes in Hungary with the desperate situation of Syrian refugees just across the border in Serbia.

In short, this is a wonderful book. Interesting, thoughtful, profound and beautifully written.

Reviewed by Library Member