Loss is like a current. Like fish, we respond with instinctive movement, ending up where we’re going but not, perhaps, where we intended. For some writers, the waterfall propulsion of grief channels, over time, into extraordinary work. Here are some books eloquent on loss, but greater than that, they reveal nature, character and a profound sense of being in the world, being part of it.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Vintage books, 2014. Winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and 2014 Costa Biography Award.)
The ignition point for H is for Hawk is the death of the author’s father. Macdonald is propelled by grief into a broken English landscape, wild as the bird she takes there to tame. Woven into the story is a biography of writer and would-be falconer T. H. White, which gives the narrative depth and mirror.
At the 2015 Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival, Helen MacDonald sits on a raised stage, angled to face the interviewer and audience. Long black hair, thick as a hearth brush, huge dark eyes, pale English skin. She wears a black shirt with a dash of purple, black skirt, black boots. She talks as if she’s known us for years. “This is one of my passages of purple prose,” she says. Is purple prose back in fashion? it’s my last thought, pre-immersion. Helen MacDonald reads, dropping images with intense, sudden clarity. I’ve put on on goggles underwater.
A question from the audience: “How much did the editor change?”
Macdonald scratches her head. “One sentence I think.” A suppressed gasp. The audience gear-shifts to gobsmacked.
Images from MacDonald’s work are seen, felt, remain — a cardboard box opens, rain peels from a bird’s feathers. Words like paint.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Black Swan, 2013).
As long as he keeps walking, thinks Harold Fry, Queenie will stay alive. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was first written as a radio play, a response by playwright Rachel Joyce to the news that her father had terminal cancer. “I knew he would never hear it, and he didn’t ever hear it,” she says in an interview. The play completed, the story still burning inside, she began a novel.
The result describes a journey through grief, landscape and human connection. It revels in nature. We marvel with Harold at the life in the verges. We walk with him as the seasons change and his body becomes hardened and tanned. We listen with fascination to the characters he encounters. It is a work that holds, at its centre, a great love of people.
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes (Picador, 2002).
After illness and a long convalescence, writer William Fiennes embarks on a journey to follow snow geese in their migration across America. A gentle, descriptive book which reads like a contemplative cello sonata.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch (Harper, 2011)
When Nina Sankovitch’s sister died, her instinct was to read. For one year she read one book each day. A mother with four young children, this was no simple matter. As she writes, Sankovitch touches the heart of why reading matters. She reflects on the ability of stories to resonate and move through us as we work things out, grieve and evolve.
Kirstie McKinnon lives, surfs and writes from her home in East Otago, New Zealand.