Yesterday I realized something pretty cool: In the past two months, I have read three of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. This would be amazing in any case, but it’s particularly exciting to me because I’ve lived with the (somewhat reasonable) fear that I’ve maybe already read all the books that I will ever truly, deeply love. I’m so glad that fear is unfounded! So, in the order in which I read them:
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
This book was on my wish list (my literal Amazon wish list, in fact) ever since it was first published in 2014 and I read review after incredible review. Michelle gave it to me for my birthday, and it lived up to all my expectations. And not just mine–it’s won tons of awards.
Primarily a memoir, the book details the year or so after the sudden death of the author’s father. It follows the evolution of both her grief and her relationship with a young goshawk (Mabel) she purchases and begins to train. At the same time, there is more than a hint of biography as Macdonald weaves in the story of author T.H. White’s (The Once and Future King) failed efforts to train his own goshawk, Gos, which tells more than a little about the man. And it is part nature-writing. The books combines these three genres in a really unusual and beautiful way. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything like it.
There is an immediacy to Macdonald’s writing that drew me in from the first. There is urgency, rawness, a spareness of words. I utterly loved this book and cannot think of a single person I know who I would not recommend it to.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
This is the first Neil Gaiman novel I’ve ever read. It was so perfect, I’ll probably never read another. It’s an adult fantasy, but one that I am eager to read with my children. It is short. In it, a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home and remembers events that occurred there when he was seven years old. But most of the story is told from his point of view as a seven-year-old. It is terrifying in all the best and right ways, I think, that stories of magic and fantasy should be dark and frightening. Parts of it have a dreamlike, or nightmarish, quality. I can only tell you that at the end of the book, as I was turning pages and wanting everything that was happening while not wanting it to end, my heart felt bigger.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
This was my second attempt at reading this book, which comes so highly recommended it’s a little ridiculous, and I’m so glad I made the effort! It had a few things working against it. Namely, it was gigantic. I don’t mean it was too long; I mean it was too big! At more than 800 pages, it’s huge, heavy, and difficult to carry around. You can’t read it in bed; you can’t hold it one hand while you read; and people are so impressed with its size that they constantly interrupt your reading to ask you about it! Apparently, it can now be purchased in three volumes.
It takes place in the Regency period, during the Napoleonic Wars, in an England in which magic is real. Strike two. I don’t generally like magical realism, it makes me feel uneasy. But! Clarke has given her magical England an entire history with a set of rules. This depth makes it feel almost like a plausible setting, and the structure helps to define it. Within this world it is fairly clear what is possible, what isn’t, and what is at stake. After I’d figured this out, at about 100 pages in, I was pretty much in love.
The writing style is kind of like Austen. There is wit and social commentary. There is also a strong narrative voice. There are well-drawn characters. I loved it. It is intimidating and smart and imaginative. She needs all those pages to do what she’s doing with this story, and it is so tightly constructed.
I wish I was still reading this damn book! Fortunately, it sounds like she was writing another that takes place a few years after. Unfortunately, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell took ten years to write, and the second one has been delayed due to illness. At least there’s the BBC series to enjoy in the meantime.
Also? John Childermass is my new boyfriend: