Refilling the Well

“You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted. Begin again the story of your life.”  Jane Hirshfield

 

My last post here was an outpouring of grief. I’d just lost my beloved cat, Camille, a loss that stops me cold in quiet moments. But in her death was the grace and necessity of catharsis, for in the mourning of that sweet creature, I released the grief of other losses, regrets, and pain: my marriage, my mother, my miscarriages, even of friends who fell away when my personal storms blew the satellite models of normalcy to hell.

 

I resurfaced in the midst of grief, still surrounded by it, but no longer carried away in its current.

 

At some point I wandered away from social media, without intention (I feel frissons of Fremdscham when people announce on Facebook that they are taking a Facebook break; I imagine someone loudly announcing their departure in the middle of a crowded party. The room goes silent for a second, then there is a collective shrug, a turning away, and the cacophony resumes at a higher intensity, uncaring and annoyed). I’ve felt strongly the need to reserve my energy and thoughts for my work, to preserve my words. At the same time, my reading picked up pace, resuming its former, pre-marriage-ending levels when my concentration was intact: two, three novels a week. I wondered if I were procrastinating—all this reading of others’ work instead of focusing on my own—but I realized this too was part of the work, as it ever has been. I am refilling the well. Reading, writing reviews, brought me to the page in the first place. The more I fill my soul with sentences and phrases that make it sing, the more I have to work with. The more I write. First comes the necessary stillness, then the slow trickle of ideas that become words that become a story.

 

It’s been nearly three years since I’ve given myself over with abandon to new characters, although our time together is only so many stolen moments—in the stillness of early morning, a warm late afternoon at water-view beer garden picnic table; a sleepy Sunday in the backyard as the dryer vents out heated air…

 

I’ve written through three weeks without a laptop, after mine died and I waited for the replacement to travel from mainland China to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Alaska, Kentucky (?), Seattle and finally my front door. I indulged in new notebooks, copying passages from Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, scribbling story ideas while researching news articles on my phone.

 

I can’t recall when I stumbled across the Hirshfield line, “How fragile we are, between the few good moments.” Yet there it is, in a scene of my new novel, clumsily recited by Ben to Kate, who lets him ramble on, unaware the line isn’t his, and frankly, not caring. She’s not a poetry fan. She slips away from the reading a few minutes later, muttering something about a bad oyster in the ear of her friend Gina, who dragged her to the event. It’s Kate’s fragile moments I am exploring, even as mine become anecdotes in a larger life.

More Than Our Anger

“In a time of anger or despair, even if we feel
overwhelmed, our love is still there. Our capacity to
communicate, to forgive, to be compassionate is
still there. You have to believe this. We are more
than our anger, we are more than our suffering.
We must recognize that we do have within
us the capacity to love, to understand,
to be compassionate, always.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

4:30 a.m. Sunday. My birthday morning. I’ve gone to bed only hours before, but a racing brain will not let me rest.

 

On Friday, I released my second novel. It is about the power of art to heal and redeem lost souls. It is about the pain of addiction, and the necessity of hope.

 

So much to do. So far behind. Three workshops to prepare for. A fall class to plan. A blog tour in support of my novel underway. I have essays to complete, interviews to respond to. Articles to pitch. Bookstores to contact. Clients awaiting feedback on query letters and manuscripts.

 

I’ll get to them. I always do. But right now, in the warmdark of this still-summer dawn, I hold pieces of my broken heart. A shattered mirror of my life. What it reflects—this distorted fun house image of reality—terrifies me.

 

Five days ago. On my yoga mat. Our teacher asks us to silently answer the question, Who Am I? I answer, I Am Loving Kindness. I Am Compassion. I Am Enough.

 

Today, I Am Anger.

 

Someday perhaps I’ll unpack why I spent a year in an emotionally destructive relationship. Or not. It is over now, and I emerge with my soul intact, fully aware of my worth and certain that what I gave, what I sacrificed, was offered in the grace of compassion and love. All that, it seems now, was wasted on another incapable of reciprocating. Or perhaps unwilling. Except that it is never a waste to have felt or to have given love.

 

Let me fall if I must fall. The one I will become will catch me -The Baal Shem Tov.

 

Images of myself curled tightly in the stairwell, unable to go up or down, able only to pray for a light to show me which way. Often that light came in the form of a white dog, a wet nose nudging me, onward.
Last winter a therapist asked me to create an image of safety and peace I could conjure up in those moments when things got so bad that I stopped breathing. An image to return me to my breath. My breath, my place of safety, was a meadow where a white dog curled beside me.

 

Collateral damage. She wasn’t mine to begin with and so I am forced to let her go. I hope that her healing soul will offer comfort and constancy in the transition from together to separate.

 

Days later, I learn that she has been taken to the shelter–a choice made in desperation. For reasons I cannot fathom, she is declared not adoptable, and put into the queue to be killed. Had I known, I could have prevented the damage those days in a cage have done.

 

I write a novel about saving endangered creatures and then suddenly, the one creature I love more than any other is in peril and I flail in acid-rage and fear. I can’t write through this one. I can’t reason with words, or find hope in a poetic turn of a phrase or cause a character to make a choice that will redeem his soul.

 

She is safe now. I got her out.

 

Every fiber of my being wants her beside me. She needs constant companionship, a place to roam, room to dig, not shut in an apartment while I am at work. The search is on for a forever home. It may be the safe harbor where she is now; we’re taking it one day at a time while I continue to search for options. Including turning my life upside-down to make a home for her.

 

(whatifiquitmyjobdoihaveenoughtimehowcanilivewithoutherhowisanyofthishappening)

 

I cannot say that I am more than my anger, that I am more than my suffering, for it is not my suffering that I bear. Yet I must be more, for the one I could not save and for the one I continue to fight for.

 

It is love that motivates me. That is more than anything. That is enough.

 

** Update 09/07/17: Veela has a permanent, loving home. Thank you Universe and social media for getting this one right. 

 

 

Neverending Story

As a rule, I don’t read reader reviews of my work. By the time a book hits the shelves, my work is complete and the reading experience no longer belongs to me. I do read trade reviews and those from sources I’ve actively sought out, such as book blogs. Occasionally, friends will send their thoughts to me directly, but I try not to ingest their words.

 

Why such caution?

 

I’ve been a member of Goodreads, the online reader review community—which now numbers in the millions of members—for nearly ten years. I’ve written hundreds of reviews and formed wonderful connections with book lovers around the world. Writing reviews, thinking carefully about the books I read, their construction, style, themes, and storytelling, became a vital part of my self-directed MFA. It’s what led me to seek out writing instruction and begin to craft stories of my own. There is no better way, in my opinion, to become a writer than to read deeply, broadly, and reflect deliberately on others’ writing. I saved $30,000 on tuition and fees, thank you so very much.

 

But people, because people are people, can be unspeakably cruel in a forum where relative anonymity is possible. Monstrous things are written about books for no reason other than spite and sheer nastiness. Even simple negative reviews, just plain old “this was crap”, make me cringe.

 

I decided a few years ago to cease publishing critical reviews of books. Not to be a Pollyanna, but because I came to understand that the negativity reflected on me and cost me far more than it did any possible good in the world. If a book does not capture me within the first pages, I set it aside. I don’t have time to waste and the only fair thing is to admit it’s not the read for me. Occasionally I will get all the way through and be frustrated, disappointed, resent the wasted time, but I’ll let the reading experience go with minimal to no comment.

 

I’d much rather exhale joy for something extraordinary. If I spend time writing a review, it’s because I want the world to know about this book.

Salt Creek, WA Copyright Julie Christine Johnson 2017

 

So that’s where I come from as a reader. As an author, I’ve come to accept that readers’ opinions are none of my business. I’m honored that anyone would spend time with my words. But hoping my intent will be understood or appreciated is futile. Readers come in with their expectations, hopes, and biases that have nothing to do with me or my words.

 

At the close of each writing workshop I lead, I read aloud Colum McCann’s gorgeous Letter to a Young Writer . It is a meditation on the power and purpose of writing for writers of any experience. I first read it months before the launch of In Another Life and it’s what made me decide that reviews were not mine to read.

 

Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Colum McCann

What is good. What is good? What is good is to keep my head down and write. To trust the editorial process and know that multiple eyes and brains have pored over and picked apart my work with the sole objective of making my story as true and strong and fearless and beautiful as possible. That it went to print when it was ready. My books will find their readers in their own time and own ways, but my work will not be for everyone.

 

So there. Now, scratch all that. Sometimes you run into yourself.

 

A few weeks ago I went into my Amazon Author Central profile to make some long-overdue updates to my bio. And front and center in the reviews of In Another Life was this comment: “… This was just a ripoff of Outlander. I couldn’t finish it. It was HORRIBLE. Skip it.”

 

Oh, the Outlander thing. I could write columns on how that comparison has haunted me. Not one I invited or welcomed, a delightful book that was not remotely an influence on my novel. This comment stung at first, but then I listened deeply. The needle entered, bit, and then disappeared. It’s okay. It’s not mine to own. Not my experience to worry about.

 

Minutes later, I hopped over to Amazon.co.uk. I didn’t realize that I had to claim a separate author profile over there; I assumed one common profile lived throughout the Amazon Universe. Crikey. How exhausting. But there is was. Front and center: “This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Well-plotted with great characterization.”

 

If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Colum McCann

 

Like opening a bag of pretzels, once I started, I couldn’t stop. And then I read something that sated me. This. This is enough. “It is a love story which involves reincarnation, it is not about time travel. Comparisons to Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ and Audrey Niffeneger’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’, are misleading. ‘In Another Life’ reminded me in style of Kate Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy, though the stories are completely different.”

 

You beautiful reader. You were inside my head. In fact, I read Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth years ago and that wonderful story sparked my imagination. I went in search of contemporary novels about the Cathars and couldn’t find any. I was so captivated by the history, the land, the potential for story that I decided to write my own.

 

Any writer who says they don’t care about validation, well, fine. But I don’t believe you. We care. We publish because we truly want readers to seek out our work. We want to be noticed, to build a readership, to engage with readers, to know that our words reach and touch and move and inspire and entertain. We write because we must. We seek publication because we believe we’ve done something worth sharing.

 

I’m so pleased to announce that In Another Life is a 2016 Foreword Indies finalist for Book of the Year, Fantasy.  Winners will be announced during the 2017 American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago in June.

 

Further delight in sharing that In Another Life is a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association annual STAR award for Debut Novel. Finalists’ novels are now being read by a panel of librarians, and winners be announced at the WFWA annual September retreat.

 

A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Colum McCann

 

My Reading Year: Best of 2015

 

This was the year of the woman writer for me. From a mound of apricots rotting on Rebecca Solnit’s floor, to the ebb and flow of Virginia Woolf’s melancholic The Waves; from Joan Didion’s 1960s Los Angeles to Kate Atkinson‘s WWII England, from Lidia Yuknavitchs ravaged bodies to Jill Alexander Essbaum‘s ravishing trysts, women took me to war zones, both personal and geographical. They wrote poetry that brought me to tears and political histories that roused me to action.

 

It was an exceptional reading year.

 

The Breakdown: 135 read

Novels: 76

Poetry Collections: 18

Essay Collections: 10

Memoir: 9

Short Story Collections: 8

Writing Craft: 8

Creative Nonfiction: (social, political, historical): 5

Biography: 1

Authors:  94 women; 37 men; 4 multiple authors

 

I made so many literary discoveries, starting with Italian writer Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; The Story of the Lost Childthat have taken the English-language world by storm. The slow burn that began a few years ago, when Europa Editions published the first of Ann Goldstein’s translations, became a bonfire of enthusiasm in 2015. And I happily joined in. I read all four of the Neapolitan Novels this year—the fourth and final of which was published this past September—as well as the incendiary The Days of Abandonment.

 

Irish novelist Anne Enright was another. Just as she was named the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction in 2015, I was finally taking notice! Man Booker winner and chronicler of modern Ireland, she writes some of the most searing, en pointe prose I’ve read . . . ever. As I noted in my review of The Forgotten Waltz, “this is not the cozy Ireland of peat fires and Catholic guilt and rain on rose petals.This is boom-time Ireland, with all its flash and well-cut suits and Chardonnay and vacation homes and holidays in Spain. This is Ireland built by IT and pharmaceuticals and foreign investment. This is Ireland rising. This is Ireland falling.” This year I read The Gathering (2007); The Forgotten Waltz (2011); and 2015’s The Green Road.

 

As a writer, it should go without saying that words matter to me, that they become my way in to understanding the world. 2015 was the year that I confronted my assumptions and ignorance about systemic racism in the United States, when I sat with my discomfort, my white privilege, and went still, listening to others’ stories. My education began with Michelle Alexander’s staggering The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, continued with the memoirs and social histories by MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipients Bryan Stevenson—Just Mercyand writer/journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates—Between the World and Me. Stevenson is the director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is doing extraordinary work to reform sentencing laws, end the death penalty, free the wrongly-imprisoned, and fight against the mass incarceration of America’s black men. I listened to the voices of black women breaking through pop culture tropes in Tamara Winfrey Harris’ The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America and suspended my disbelief to absorb white journalist John Howard Griffin’s 1959 social experiment, Black Like Me.

 

I heard black voices sing with profound resonance and piercing clarity in the poetry of Jacqueline Woodson—Brown Girl Dreaming, Yusef Komunyakaa—Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, Kira Lynne Allen—Write This Second, Patricia Spears Jones—A Lucent Fire, and two poets with the same last name who are related only by their extraordinary literary gifts: Camille Rankine—Incorrect Merciful Impulses and Claudia Rankine’s multiple-award winning prose/poetry/essay/graphic work of art and power, Citizen: An American Lyric.

 

Speaking of Poetry. Oh. Let us speak of Poetry. Even before I knew I’d be attending my first poetry workshop, writing my first poems, I resolved to be more deliberate in reading poetry. To read more. To read widely. And I made the most beautiful discoveries. In addition to those listed above, works by Ellen Bass—The Human Line, Jack Gilbert—Collected Poems, Galway Kinnell—A New Selected Poems, Hélène Cardona—Dreaming My Animal Selves, and Charles Wright—Caribou made a particular tilt/shift to my world.

 

And here are a few books that took my breath away, books I wanted to press into everyone’s hands, saying, “Read this. You must.” Excerpted comments are from my Goodreads reviews, books presented in no particular order.

 

Euphoria, Lily King (Fiction: 2014)

Euphoria was inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead and her experiences along the Sepik River with her husband Reo Fortune and the British anthropologist who would become her second husband, Gregory Bateson. But the story is entirely of King’s invention, including the tribes and their cultures. The novel is a feat of research, imagination, passion, and restraint.

 

Something Rich and Strange, Ron Rash (Short stories: 2014)

Rash’s writing is marvelous and his mastery of the short story breathtaking. He wrings full stories with astonishing economy of plot—many are mere pages long—yet each is rendered in vivid detail. You have the sense that you are eavesdropping into these lives, seeing, hearing, smelling Rash’s world before the characters walk away, leaving you wondering what might become of their Shakespearean-tragic lives.

 

The Waves, Virginia Woolf (Fiction: 1931)

The Waves made me quiver. It made my heart jump under my frock like the leaves. I don’t know when I have read such a thing of beauty, a work that soars in joy and plummets elegiacally, rising and falling, ever in motion, and yet caught in stillness. A listening.

 

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald (Memoir: 2014)

H is for Hawk stole me, holding me captive with its madness and love. Part claustrophobic memoir of grief, part luminous tribute to the sport of falconry, Helen Macdonald’s book is brilliant and tense. It is a story of fury and grace, recounted in pulsing, poetic language.

 

Still Writing, Dani Shapiro (Memoir, Writing Craft Inspiration: 2013)

Dani Shapiro, in this compact, eloquent, lovely book touches every aspect of a writer’s life: the distractions, the blocks, the longings, envies, vulnerabilities, processes and rhythms, cold realities, and the sustaining joys. It is less advice and prescription than empathy born of experience, a sincere hug but then a leaning back with hands clasped on your shoulders, turning you around and pushing you out the door. “Courage,” she writes, “is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”

 

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Jonathan Evison (Fiction, 2012)

Avoiding the literary cleverness and Big Ideas that are fashionable in postmodern American novels, Jonathan Evison delivers a clear-eyed but hopeful story of loss and love, parenting, and friendship. Read, and be redeemed.

 

Landfalls, Naomi Williams (Fiction: 2015)

This is simply the best of what historical fiction can be: a voyage of discovery that speaks to the imagination and the heart, swallowing the reader whole like a literary whale.

 

The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra (Short stories: 2015)

Marra returns us to the claustrophobic terror of Soviet Russia and Stalin’s purges, where a child’s careless words can send a mother to prison, an uncle to his death, where an art restorer must eliminate evidence of subversion from paintings yet manages to score some subversion of his own. We meet the children and grandchildren of those who survived (or not) Siberia’s labor camps and prisons, young people born into glasnost and a Russia where the rich measure their wealth in billions, fueled by corruption, drugs and guns.

 

Her Own Vietnam, Lynn Kanter (Fiction: 2014)

Kanter show the bonds between women that are both complex and deeply satisfying, whether those woman are partners, sisters, mothers/daughters, friends or fellow soldiers. Men are present everywhere, of course–this is a novel about war, after all–but their behavior, vulnerabilities and strengths are filtered through the perspective of women who are not dependent upon them for an identity.

 

Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf (Fiction: 2015)

My heart is so full of admiration and affection for Kent Haruf, his stories, his characters, his dry, dusty, flat eastern Colorado. I ache for what was, what will never be again. I am thankful for this final, perfect book—written for his wife and true love, Cathy—and her generosity in sharing it with her husband’s readers. Kent, you are so missed. Thank you.

 

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A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

 

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

 

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

 

The Small Backs of ChildrenThe Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

 

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

 

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

 

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

 

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

 

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

 

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

 

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

 

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The Waves, The Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

 

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

 

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

 

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for HawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’.
Here’s another word: raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey’. From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere meaning ‘seize’. Rob. Seize. (Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk)

 

Here’s another word: Captivating. H is for Hawk held me captive with madness and love. Part claustrophobic memoir of grief, part luminous tribute to the sport of falconry, Helen Macdonald’s book is brilliant and tense. It is a story of fury and grace, recounted in pulsing, poetic language.

 

Helen’s father, a famous Fleet Street photographer, dies unexpectedly and Helen, a historian, poet, and experienced falconer, tumbles into the abyss. Retreating from the world, she seizes on the one thing she believes will keep her from being swallowed by grief: she will train a goshawk.

 

Goshawks are the Velociraptors of the raptor world, a hawk of the genus Accipter, not to be confused with its far more approachable and trainable cousin the falcon, of the genus Falco. Macdonald’s Czech-German goshawk, whom she purchases on a Scottish quayside for £800, is “a griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary”. The bird appears as a primordial creature, an ancient, disappeared thing rising from the half-life of history: “the lucency of her pale, round eyes… the waxy, yellow skin about her Bakelite-black beak… half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass”.

 

Macdonald names the goshawk Mabel, from the Latin amabilis, meaning “lovable” or “dear”. This is perhaps a hope that Macdonald projects onto the goshawk, for there is always a current of tension and violence running between woman and raptor, and Macdonald never takes for granted that this creature, who lives in her home and perches on her wrist, is built for murder.

 

Training a goshawk is a pressure cooker of isolation and suppressed emotion. The bird is hyper-sensitive to disturbances in its force field and in the early days Macdonald lives like a monk—barely eating or sleeping. She forgets she is human as she works to enter Mabel’s psyche and earn her trust. In this way, she shuts down her human mourning and becomes something feral. She feeds Mabel corpses of tiny birds. Gradually, she reenters the world, Mabel on her wrist. Raptor and woman learn to navigate the outside together, each wholly dependent on the other for cues and sustenance, one emotional, the other flesh.

 

H is for Hawk seduces the reader with the peculiar lexicon of falconry

As a child I’d cleaved to falconry’s disconcertingly complex vocabulary. In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train. Male hawks are a third smaller than the female so they are called tiercels, from the Latin tertius, for third. Young birds are eyasses, older birds passagers, adult-trapped birds haggards. Half-trained hawks fly on a long line called a creance. Hawks don’t wipe their beaks, they feak. When they defecate they mute. When they shake themselves they rouse. On and on it goes in a dizzying panoply of terms of precision.

 

Macdonald herself has the soul of a poet and uses language to a lyrical, gorgeous degree in her book. Upon bringing Mabel home for the first time, she tells us the bird fills “the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.” She stands in a field “washed pewter with frost”. Pages of this beautiful wording fill the memoir. And strikingly, so does a strain of literary thriller, a masterful touch that lifts the narrative sharply from Macdonald’s heavy grief. Each foray the pair makes outside is fraught, first with fear—how will Mabel respond the hurly-burly of modern life—then, as the raptor is allowed to fly with increasing liberty, there is escape, violence, death. Macdonald snaps the necks of the rabbits that Mabel attacks; she pockets the pheasants that Mabel poaches. She watches with her heart in her throat as Mabel flies free, away from her, and realizes she has transferred all her hope and madness into this raw, fierce, creature.

 

Paralleling Macdonald and Mabel’s journey is the story of the British writer TH White, best known for The Sword in the Stone, his epic retelling of the Arthurian legend. White was also a falconer and wrote of his experiences trying to train a goshawk. His tribulations with Gos become something of a metaphor for his troubled life. Macdonald recounts the abuse and neglect he suffered at the hands of his parents, the depravity of his boarding school classmates, the cruel repression of his homosexuality, and his struggles as a writer. Macdonald seems to use the sadness of White’s life as a way to cope with her own, as well as a cautionary tale of how not to build a relationship with a goshawk.

 

At her father’s memorial, many months after his death, Macdonald has a crystalline epiphany: “…human hands have other hands to hold; they shouldn’t be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.” There are many turning points and milestones in the training of Mabel, but it is this moment when we see a human animal transform. Balancing between the dreamlike world of falconry and the prosaic demands of home, job, and relationships, she regains her footing.

 

As Macdonald so beautifully states, the “archeology of grief is not ordered.” There is no formula for surviving the worst the world can conjure. We each struggle our way through the morass. Helen Macdonald found her redemption in the keen, wild soul of goshawk.

 

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Whiplash: The Power of Story

Sunday afternoon, in the warm, dark cocoon of a movie theatre—my husband working, the rest of the immediate universe watching the Superbowl—I saw a powerful, brilliant film. One of the best I’ve seen.

 

Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is a small-budget marvel that brings home the power of story, reminding us how few bells and whistles are needed to rivet an audience. A simple plot, a clear theme, a setting that inhabits the characters, but doesn’t draw attention away from them. A story driven by the will and force of its characters. Characters you cannot turn your mind away from.

 

Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman at a fictionalized New York music conservatory, is a gifted, introverted jazz drummer who goes to movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and stares longingly at the pretty girl who serves him up a bucket of popcorn (Melissa Benoist). Andrew’s talent catches the ear of the school’s reining jazz God, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and he’s invited to join Fletcher’s studio band. Studio band is the school’s most prestigious—the one that wins competitions and makes or breaks careers. What follows is an emotional thriller that is as taut as the skin stretched over a drum.

 

It’s been twenty years since I’ve reacted so viscerally to a movie (The English Patient. It still destroys me. Oh, that movie.) At one point, I felt a hot, woozy wave wash over me and I feared I’d either faint or vomit. I dropped my feet from the seat—I’d been curled in a tight ball of tension—and slid them back into my tennis shoes, preparing to flee if need be. That’s how wrenched and gutted and caught up in this story I’d become.

 

It’s facile fun to get lost in a fast-paced nail-biter, to fall over the edge into a cliffhanger, yet I don’t read many thrillers. But that’s not what I’m talking about here—the power of Whiplash isn’t in hitting the conventional story arcs at the right times; it’s in the profound dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher, a story that shoves aside all unnecessary filler and fluff to drive right at the heart with searing emotion and at the intellect with questions of ethics and the cult of personality.

 

One theme: power. Arguably, how hard one is willing to work for a dream could be another, but I find that trite. This movie is about power. Two characters. A limited range of settings used to stunning effect. A tightly-plotted script. Realistic, unaffected, loose dialogue from one character; a calculated cascade of abuse or soothing manipulation from another. A story that is largely autobiographical, from a director and screenwriter working out his own rage and hurt. He isn’t showing us what he knows, Chazelle is showing us what he feels. He lets the characters work out what they know, or what they convince themselves of. A denouement that releases you into a false sense of relief, before electrifying you with an ending that offers both redemption and ambiguity. It is storytelling perfection.

 

As a viewer, I was captivated. Twisted into knots. Gutted. Exhausted. As a writer, I was all, THIS. THIS is how it’s done.

Grit. © Julie Christine Johnson 2015