H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald

Hello, Readers–

End of summer’s here at last, and I’ll miss it despite the fact I’ve done nothing but complain about heat and humidity the past few months. But change always scares me, and fall is a big change, perhaps the biggest seasonal change on the east coast. Why? Because it’s a step toward winter, the deadest of seasons (not the deadliest or ugliest or anything bad, by any means–I love winter, especially here in the South). Still, it’s a step toward death. Which leads me to the subject of this post–Helen Mc Donald’s disturbing yet amazing autobiography, H is for Hawk. What follows is my review.

This was a lovely book. Not a happy book, and not an easy book. But a thoughtful, interesting, beautifully-written one in which Helen McDonald weaves together three main threads–the loss of her father, TH White’s genius vis-a-vis his personal struggles, and her relationship with Mabel, a young female goshawk. How do these threads connect? I’m not sure I can explain it, because the tapestry is subtle, long and complex. The best I can say is the author is devastated by her father’s untimely death, cannot accept it or speak of it at first. She remembers loving hawks as a child, observing and training them with her father. This inspires her to purchase a young goshawk from Germany, I believe, the same place from which revered author TH White had gotten his beloved hawk, Gos. This also spurs McDonald’s memories of TH White’s autobiography, in which he describes training Gos, which McDonald argues has much to do with White’s own childhood. A gay man in merry old England at a time when it was not popular to be gay (especially in the eyes of his judgmental parents) made White feel like a misfit his entire life, despite his acclaimed teaching and writing career. Author of The Once and Future King, it’s ironic that the creator of this story of honor and nobility and equality should have so suffered at the hands of his own parents. But maybe that’s why he valued the beautiful Arthurian legend that inspired his work.

On to McDonald and her father. The pain of her father’s loss also inspires McDonald to raise a goshawk, easily one of the swiftest and deadliest killers on the planet. But McDonald does not judge her hawk, Mabel, for this. If anything, she respects her instinct and integrity. The hawk is an unabashed carnivore, honing in on her prey with laser precision. There’s no guilt, no remorse, and, from what I could tell, no subsequent bonding with her trainer. Still, Mc Donald loves this bird and somehow derives solace from its unrequited killing. It’s as if she identifies with this aspect of the bird (and I think she says so in the book), because raising the hawk helps her deal with her father’s death. He was brutally taken from McDonald, without warning or explanation. It was, in her view, a meaningless death. A sudden and terrible loss of the person she’d adored from childhood on. A gentle, kind man who studied the world through a photographer’s lens–from afar and with great respect, much like a tiny hare who lives his life unaware of the dangers that surround him–dangers like Mabel, who ruthlessly grabs the unwitting hare, crushes him to death with her claws, then devours him.

Similarly, TH White is able to deal with his homosexuality (and his father’s condemnation) through his relationship with his difficult goshawk, Gos. White’s attempt to control his very macho (though I believe Gos was female) hawk is in response to his own feelings of inadequacy for being gay.  I’m not quite sure how this works, either.  Both Mc Donald and White are in great pain and somehow externalizing that pain by raising remorseless killers helps them overcome it. Perhaps McDonald learns to accept death as  part of life–senseless, unexpected, and hurtful to those left behind–but a natural none-the-less.  This is what Mabel teaches her–that  in order to fulfill her destiny as a hawk, she must search and kill. There is no ulterior motive other than getting food. The hawk is guileless and driven by instinct. There’s no malice in her behavior.  It’s simply a matter of survival.  In this way, McDonald comes to admire, love and appreciate the hawk for who she is. So, too, she must continue to admire, love and honor her father, despite his swift and sudden death. He’s not killed out of malice either–he just dies because that is what we humans (and all living things) must do.  There is nothing more to it–just like the goshawk’s killing.  It’s the hand of fate, it’s guileless and remorseless.  It’s a ticking clock,  that’s all.  There’s on one to blame for her father’s death, because there’s no reason or intention behind it.  It just is.  If she can accept this about the hawk’s nature, she can learn to accept this fact about human life.  We live, we die, and we are mourned.  Thus, anger is displaced by sorrow, and McDonald can at least understand her father’s death.

In White’s case, McDonald demonstrates how control of the hawk is a substitute for control over his life.  His impulses, like the hawk’s, are natural, outside of his control, guileless and, therefore, innocent.  He is able to accept who he is by loving and understanding this creature with similarly uncontrollable passions.  There’s nothing wrong or right with those passions.  They just are.  Just as is McDonald’s hawk’s predatory nature.  Just as is her father’s sudden and unexplained death. Such is life, such is loss, so she must let it go, much as she and White release their hawks and watch them do the unthinkable. That is life and we must respect it.

I hope this review makes sense to readers.  It’s simply my attempt to explain this remarkable book to myself.  I look forward to reading critical reviews to see what others think.

Thank you for reading–jgk.  

Review of I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers

One of the best novels I’ve read in recent years, I Saw a Man is thematic, thoughtful and literary without being pretentious. A bit of a mystery with a soupcon of murder, the novel opens with an obscure poem by Hughes Mearns:

“Yesterday, upon the stair,
I saw a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away …”

A charming, but seemingly meaningless, ditty, it is a clue to the deeper, more perturbing issues in I Saw a Man—issues of guilt and responsibility, remorse and blame, sadness and forgiveness, accident and intention. In short, the novel with a deceptively simple title and epigraph is anything but simple.

In the opening pages of I Saw a Man aspiring novelist, Michael Turner, finds his true love in an international journalist named Caroline. Settling in a remote corner of Wales to escape their frenetic pre-marital lifestyles, their idyllic married life is tragically cut short when Caroline takes a risky assignment in Afghanistan. The inciting incident of the novel, it leads Michael on a path through anger and grief before finally resolving in a sort of clouded empathy as he returns to his birth city and establishes a new life. But what happens between points A &B is a series of highly unanticipated events, all of which contribute to the novel’s main theme.

Beautifully written with an economy of backstory and description, the novel is a classic peeling-an-onion style narrative, wherein widower Michael Turner reveals the details of his past in bits and pieces that accrue more and more meaning as the novel progresses. The setting of the story, a luxurious heath in south London, plays a prominent role in the novel, too, informing its mood and events.  A second literary technique Sheers uses to great advantage in the novel is mirroring, whereby seemingly disparate and unrelated events parallel one another, drawing readers back time and again to the novel’s central issue of culpability.

If this review seems obscure, it is because I Saw a Man is the sort of novel that invites (and deserves) scrutiny. It is opaque in a good way, rich in depth and dimension. What I admire most, however, is how Sheers subtly highlights the larger issues of the novel without bludgeoning us with them. Beyond the culpability of the main characters, for example, is the larger question of authenticity. Unlike them, we may not have caused another’s misfortune, but surely we, too, have indirectly fostered hurts and pain—small but significant partial deaths—in our lifetimes. It is part of being human. No matter how much we aspire to truth, beauty and goodness, we inevitably face situations in which we are less than honest, irresponsible if not entirely guilty, hurtful by default, if you will.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is Michael’s description of himself as an aspiring fiction-writer. Here again we experience the reflexive nature of Sheers’ novel—he is writing a novel about a character who wants to do just that—write a novel. Again, think of peeling-an-onion or a Chinese box. As a failed novelist, Michael finds his niche in writing non-fictional, intimate portrayals of people he meets. Here Sheers blurs the line between fiction and reality—an inherent flaw of biography—because of the categorical impossibility of ever truly knowing another human being. The irony is that even as Michael acknowledges the impossibility of knowing the exact content of his subject’s each and every conversation, his subject may have had, he still believes there is a measure of truth the writer is able to convey by virtue of his proximity to his subject, a proximity he seeks to actualize by removing himself, the observing party, from the final product, the biography. Thus Sheers’ protagonist inserts himself into other people’s lives in order to discover their truths, then promptly “disappears himself” from the finished work in order to more fully realize his subject’s unadulterated reality.

Michael exercises this technique in early in the novel in his summary of “Neighborhoods,” a study of two brothers whose contrasting lives continue to diverge from one another even after the book is finished. A second book he’s written is about a scientist who seeks to identify the exact nature of empathy by theorizing there are certain cells in the brain that actually “mirror” other people’s experiences, thus allowing them to understand and empathize with each other. Sheers’ novel exhibits this same type of mirroring or repetition as Michael seeks his own truth and struggles to become as authentic a human being as possible.

If this discussion has taken a metaphysical turn, it’s because I Saw a Man is ‘meta’ in nature. Like many great works, its form equals content, the meaning of the novel and its telling feeding one another in an endless loop. I’ve purposely avoided specificity to allow the reader to discover the novel’s meaning for himself.

Overall, I Saw a Man is a modern masterpiece, much like The Goldfinch or All the Light We Cannot See. Like Donna Tart and Anthony Doerr, Own Sheers is one of those writers whose work resonates far beyond the confines of its covers. I honestly can’t imagine—and can’t wait to see—what Sheers writes next.

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Wow.  If this wasn’t an interesting book…. I went from loving it to hating it to loving it again.  It’s beautifully written, not in a literary sense, but in terms of its economy of language, precision of diction, etc.  And I loved the mixed-media format, from e-mails between Bernadette and her arch rival, Audrey, to narrative passages told from daughter Bee’s point-of-view to Sonia’s, the ‘admin’s’, frank and funny posts.

Really funny, most of this book!  In short, it’s about a wacky family in Seattle, Washington, whose life centers around a sickly thirteen-year-old girl and her ‘unusual’ (to say the least) parents. Beginning with an introduction to the Branchs’ quirky home life, the story takes off when Bernadette’s neighbor complains the Branchs’ blackberry bushes are invading her backyard, an enormous issue because said neighbor (Audrey) is hosting an outdoor fundraiser for the private school their children both attend. Ultimately, as the title suggests, Bernadette goes missing, which sets off a cavalcade of events that take us as far away as the South Pole.

Where I got bogged down was in Bernadette’s backstory–from her years as an aspiring architect in Los Angeles to her current life in Seattle, a place which baffles and confounds her with its 5-way stop lights and its curiously polite denizens, a population almost ‘Canadian’ in its deference. Despite Semple’s deft and humorous treatment, the pace slowed here as these narratives morphed into digressive rants instead of serving to advance the story.

What kept me reading throughout, though, were Semple’s acerbic observations about people, places, things, and the delightful chaos of Bernadette’s daily life. What drew me in at the end, especially, was Bee’s impassioned quest for her mother and Bernadette’s own self-awareness–which elevated the story from simple comedy to a moving narrative replete with pathos, regret, and, ultimately, love.

5 stars