There have been hawks and ospreys and bald eagle nests filling my week! I was off in the Maryland countryside and saw so many birds of prey soaring around, casual sky watchers, and I was reminded of a book I read a few months ago by Glenway Wescott, The Pilgrim Hawk: a Love Story.
I had heard about it through Open Letter Monthly’s series on short novels about a year ago, and taking my time, finally ordered and read a copy. The novel starts with the classic ex-patriot scene: Alwyn Towers is visiting his friend, Alexandra, in the French countryside, when a couple Alex has met drops in on a visit. The couple, the Cullens, are full of eccentricities typical of other literary Irish characters. But most distinctly, Mrs. Cullen’s new object of fascination is her pilgrim hawk, Lucy, who sits on a falconry glove on Mrs. Cullen’s arm.
The bird rules the roost it seems and as we learn, the husband suffers greatly because of it. But Wescott leads us around: who does the subtitle refer to, the bird or the man? It’s the question that Alwyn pivots around, trying to determine who is the victor and who is the victim. He never really answers it, leaving us to imagine the strange details about these characters’ past lives.
The novel takes place over merely a few hours, an afternoon in which Alwyn is subjected to inane conversation, the husband’s growing drunkenness, and the bird’s ever-growing personality. The Moroccan husband and wife staff team running Alex’s kitchen bring even more hilarity to the dire situation of the stifled living room.
It is probably misleading to say this is a comic novel, but there is a delight in the inanity of others. The novel is tedious at times, but mostly so that the reader can fully absorb Alwyn’s horror at being placed in the middle of this situation. It is the classic realization of when people go abroad – the mix in strange company, with people they otherwise would have no affinity towards.
When I finished the book, I wasn’t sure if I liked it. But like a French new wave movie, the more I thought about it, the more it grew on me, and the lasting images were hard to shake. I keep thinking about the strange context of the book, even while watching a bird in the Maryland sky.
And as for the setting being France, it seems no one cares. Well, except for the hired driver, who is ever the stereotype of a handsy low-class man that can be imagined. It’s worth a read, especially if you like strange situation and bizarre characters. And it’s short!