I had read several ecstatic reviews of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a memoir of grief via the taming of a goshawk named Mabel, so eagerly reserved the book at the library. It arrived for me then, some months later, at an inconvenient time. We were going away, plus there was a pile of other books I’d committed to already.
Fortunately, I thought, as I retrieved the book from the Reserve Shelf and signed it out, I had in the meanwhile read a dissenting opinion by a blogger whose views I appreciate. I too sometimes find myself disappointed with the latest hot thing to read. Relieved at the possibility of this being the case again, I decided I might just take a quick peek for peeking’s sake and return the book to the library unread.
No such luck. I was immediately hooked. Not by the theme, for though interesting and important, grief is ubiquitous in memoir, and not by its topics of falconry or hawks or the life of T.H. White, author of Arthurian books, The Once and Future King, which winds through Macdonald’s narrative. It was the writing. Her descriptions are remarkable — “a brumous, pewter light outside, as if someone had stuck tracing paper against the glass”– and the language rushes along with both suspense and insight — “my heart is salt”– even though there is much that remains unrevealed and most everything concerns not human encounters but fear and wildness in nature and the psyche. And just when I was beginning to wonder if she would ever address the killing business, which is what hawks do–“Kill things. Make death.”–she does. I watched Macdonald train her Mabel and tramp about the fields with her like one watches something repellent yet impossibly compelling. Like one stares at an accident. It’s the kind of book that makes one ache to write like that.
I finished the book before we left (me to meetings in Fresno, Cal. and both of us to a week with our children in B.C.), no longer sorry it had trumped my pile. For being away, I took along All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This book is not nearly as intense as the previous, but certainly as masterfully written. Set during the Second World War, the novel weaves together the stories of a blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, and an orphaned German boy, Werner Pfennig, and a rare and beautiful diamond called the Sea of Flames. If that sounds suspiciously kitschy, it’s not, but tender and sad and hopeful instead, though almost too good to be true. But hopeful because of it. I was especially taken with Doerr’s ability to convey the blind girl’s world through her other senses, and by the intimate, beguiling role of radio. R is for recommend.