I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West is one of the best books I’ve ever read–and I’ve read a few of them. The writing in this book is so exquisite that I often had to set the book down. At one point, I shouted after reading something so profound. This book was so incredible, to me, that I almost don’t even know what to write about it.
Have you ever read a book by a dead author and mourned their death, because there’s not even the slightest change that you would ever get to meet them? For me, Rebecca West is one of those writers.
So what’s it all about? It’s a 1930s travelogue of the Balkans. It sounds fairly innocuous, but when reading this book I felt like I was peering into the secret history of the world (or at least the European portion of it). When King Alexander of Yugoslavia was assassinated in Marseille, France (an event I’d never read about!) Rebecca West decided that she would travel to the Balkans for the express purpose of trying to understand why this region of the world kept setting Europe on fire and why, she correctly intuited, it would do so again. I think she succeeded.
Why did World War I start? The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand is the first thing that springs to my mind. I know there were other things too, but the why of that event never went deep enough for in explaining how that event caused the human abattoir of that War to End All Wars. Now, I feel like I understand it in my bones. I feel like understand, emotionally, how and why that thing happened and how it fed into the bloody massacres that followed, the ones we’re all still reeling from, even though we don’t quite realize it. It wasn’t a quick process. I had to read ~1100 pages to get there.
But okay, you may be thinking, What’s the big deal here? You understand how and why WWI started. Is that really worth all the time and energy you put into this?
I don’t know, you kind of have to take my word for it. I’m still struggling to fit this book into my brain. I’m not sure I ever will. It’s one of those books I was tempted to start re-reading as soon as I’d finished it.
Check it out. I don’t think you’ll regret it.