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Helen Macdonald

Prophet by Helen MacDonald and Sin Blaché

October 2023, no. 458

For those familiar with Helen MacDonald’s popular nature memoir H is for Hawk (2014), her latest work will come as a surprise. Prophet is many things, most of which bear little resemblance to any of MacDonald’s previous work. To begin with, Prophet is a co-authored work of fiction, a rare feature in the world of novelists, in which co-authors are often compelled to conceal such paratextual detail, as in Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck’s The Expanse series, published under the pen name James S. A. Corey. Where other narrative arts enjoy the cachet of collaboration, literature – in particular literary fiction – prefers the toil of the sole creator. It is only right, then, that Prophet is a bona-fide page turner made of equal parts spy thriller, science fiction, and romance. Germinated in collaborative back and forth over Zoom at the height of the pandemic, friends MacDonald and Sin Blaché have produced an action novel that, while carrying the troubling traces of the time, leans into the comforting diet of cultural nostalgia millions embraced during the binge-filled days of lockdown.

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The world evoked by British nature writer and historian Helen Macdonald in her new collection of essays is haunted by no end of unsettling and shrouded presences. The sight of a flock of starlings gives her a shiver of fear. Why? Because in her imagination the flock connects with a mass of refugees. The sight of falcon eggs in an incubator makes her unaccountably upset. Then she remembers that she, too, as a very premature baby, was once kept alive in just such a box. And on it goes.

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After fiddling with the bits of leather designed to curtail a newly bought goshawk, T.H. White grumbled that 'It has never been easy to learn life from books' (The Goshawk, 1963). Helen Macdonald says the same thing, twice: all the books in piles on her desk, designed to help her deal with grief, cannot 'taxonomise the process, order it, make it sensible'. ...

In 1543, Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius, in De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), wrote: ‘the violation of the body would be the revelation of its truth.’ Three hundred years later, English, Scottish and Australian anatomists, anatomy inspectors, museum curators and seemingly anyone involved in the business of bodies adopted the credo of violation to the extent of also violating the truth. The revelation of their contravention of laws and desecration of the dead is the subject of Helen MacDonald’s second book on the cadaver trade.

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