Vesper Flights

Helen Macdonald, Jonathan Cape, £16.99

“Someone once told me that every writer has a subject that underlies everything they write,” Helen Macdonald notes on the very first page of Vesper Flights. “It can be love or death, betrayal or belonging, home or hope or exile. I choose to think that my subject is love, and most specifically love for the glittering world of non-human life around us.”

Macdonald made her name with her award-winning 2014 book H is for Hawk, a detailed account of her life with a goshawk called Mabel which doubles as an essay on her grief for her father, all beautifully sustained over more than 280 pages.

Vesper Flights, by contrast, is a gather-up of short, sharp essays, none more than 20 pages, many as brief as two or three. Yet, like its predecessor, it’s full of treasures.

Her essay Storm is a perfect example. Just three pages long, it begins on a drive on the M25 and takes in building storm clouds, aeroplanes and a flock of parakeets, all in the first paragraph, before going on to her own memories (“I’ve measured all my summers by their storms,” she writes), the life cycle of a thunderstorm, her grandmother’s terror of the Blitz (and the echoes of it she heard in every peel of thunder), Agatha Christie, LP Hartley, Brexit and Trump. That’s a lot to cover in such a small space. And yet none of it feels forced.


Time and again Macdonald knits human experience to her fascination with the natural world. The title essay is about the otherness of swifts, but it also takes in her own Gothy tendencies, being bullied as a child, love and loss.

And yet all of this is couched in scientific learning. It is never a case of Macdonald anthropomorphising the flora and fauna she views. Rather, she uses her experiences to remind us that we are not separate from the world. We are part of it. And we are responsible for it.

This matters. The pleasures of Vesper Flights are the pleasures of any literature; the lucidity of thought, the sensual tactility of the words (Macdonald can make you feel the bristle of the beetles that catch in her hair on a summer night), the comfort of the familiar and the thrill of the strange.

But it is combined here with a real urgency, an awareness of our human imprint on the world and the damage that is doing.

“Literature can teach us the qualitative texture of the world,” she also writes in her introduction. “And we need it to. We need to communicate the value of things, so that more of us might fight to save them.”

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