In the past week I read Helen MacDonald's H is for Hawk. It is a hauntingly beautiful book that is also deeply painful, often mesmerizingly so, in its exploration of the depths of grief and the accompanying loss of self. By the writing the book as an interleaving of three stories, the loss of her father, the training of a hawk, and a thread about TH White's life and similar book on training a goshawk she manages to touch on the darker side of grief, the part we don't really want to talk about: the wild, feral aspects of our own emotions and the foundations of our own sense of self. Yes, the book can be read on several levels, and at times the connections between the different threads seem disjointed and almost jarring, but then so is the experience of grief, so is the process of redefining oneself in terms of a newly perceived reality, and in this book that swirling maelstrom of loss and despair is never far beneath the surface. Nor is it neatly resolved at the end of the book, and this may indeed be discomfiting for some readers.
There were so many things that struck me as "true" about this book: the way the loss of a defining person in one's life takes one back to the very essence of how one became one's own self; the wonderful details of environmental, natural, and social history and how they combine to create the background in which we all live; the itemization and details of hawking which remind me of the Medieval penchant for list-making and the way these lists both jar the reader as they seem out of context while at the same time their very existence points to the fractured nature of existence and the way we piece our perceptions together; the exploration of the author's own conversation with TH White's book and how the process of reading closely changes with age and life experiences but how deep reading can alter and enhance our own understandings of both ourselves and the world. But there were also portions of the book where I wished I could just shake the author and knock some sense into her, even as I realize that of course this is not possible, not because I am reading a book, but because no one can knock anyone else to their senses. It is not only fruitless, but ultimately more damaging, to try.
I like the way the book ends, just ends. Simply and bluntly without apology. Well, that is not completely true. There is a postscript. The author seeks out more information about White, and she goes to his cottage. The book ends with the author watching, as she often does, but with a sense of acceptance. The closing paragraph, in many ways less beautiful and meaningful than so many things I underlined and commented upon in my own personal notes while reading this book, continues to resonate, as it points to, and almost shimmers with, a sense of acceptance, and the appreciation of one's solitary walk through this life, that comes on the far side of clawing one's way out of the pits of grief. The closing paragraph is in fact a closure of sorts, an acknowledgement of the solitude and acceptance, and yes, concern, of the process of becoming more than just a person, of becoming more fully human.
But then I put that thought aside. I put it down, and the relief was immense, as if I had dragged a half-tone weight from myself and cast it by the grassy road. White is gone. The hawk has flown. Respect the living, honor the dead. Leave them be. I saluted the man, though he could not see me. It was a silly, wobbly salute, and even as I did it I felt foolish. And then I turned and walked away. I left the man who was not a ghost, and I walked south. Over the bright horizon the sky swam like water.