Helen Macdonald’s celebrated memoir, H is for Hawk (Penguin Random House), left me with mixed feelings. The detail is exquisite, but the more I read, the clearer it became that I am fundamentally unsympathetic to falconry. I don’t relate to the furtiveness, the isolation, the obsession and the angst; I see nothing noble in ploughing through muddy fields, ripping clothes and flesh on brambles and fences, all for the purpose of taming a wild creature.
If Mabel (what kind of a sappy name is that for a bird of prey?) had flown away over the hills I would have yelled ‘hooray for the hawk!’ and I wouldn’t have cared a bit that its neurotic keeper was distraught.
So why did I keep reading? Because the writing is unquestionably brilliant. I’ll never warm to the topic, but I have much to learn from Macdonald’s ability to weave the strands of grief, loss, hope and healing into a coherent whole. This paragraph, in particular, made me wish I’d written it:
‘There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.’
How beautiful and accomplished is that? I had to read it three times before I got over being dazzled and discovered that I don’t agree. Yes, people die, relationships collapse, fortunes come and go. Loss, suffering and change are inevitable and will seem like chasms to those who are tethered to the past. But there was love and joy there too. What of that? And there are always new things, no matter how ancient and weathered you are, if you anchor yourself in the present and look around. There’s nothing wrong with the familiar, comforting substance of memory, but it should make us alert to the current experience that adds, moment by everyday moment, to our life store.
I read the book all the way to the end. I loved it, hated it and learned from it.
Just like life.