Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past. (pg. 16, Jonathan Cape)
H is for Hawk is one of those rare books that come along every so often that have the potential to resonate with many readers, perhaps even changing their outlook on life in some small way. An ingenious blend of memoir and nature writing, an intelligent, multi-layered and humane work, H is for Hawk is one of my favourite books of the year.
When Helen Macdonald, a Cambridge historian, writer and illustrator, loses her father to a heart attack, she is devastated. Throughout her life, she has looked up to her dad with the two Macdonalds sharing several qualities and personality traits. Helen, a watcher by nature, is fascinated by birds of prey and an experienced trainer of falcons. Her father, a press photographer by profession, grew up watching birds of a different kind. By spending his childhood spotting and recording details of planes, he honed the observational skills and patience that would serve him well in his future career as a photojournalist.
Broken by grief and a deep sense of emptiness, Helen Macdonald latches on to the one passion she believes may help her fill the void left by the loss of her father: a quest to raise and train a young goshawk. Despite her vast experience with falcons, this endeavour represents quite a challenge for Macdonald as goshawks come with a reputation for being notoriously difficult to tame. Nevertheless, she presses ahead and takes delivery of the bird on a Scottish quayside for £800 in twenty-pound notes in a scene that she readily admits feels ‘like a drugs deal.’
When she arrives back in Cambridge, Macdonald fills the freezer with hawk food, unplugs the phone and begins the process of bonding with the hawk whom she names Mabel. (The name derives from the Latin ‘amabilis,’ meaning ‘lovable’, or ‘dear.’) It’s an intense process, one that requires great patience, delicacy and solitude, and in an effort to gain Mabel’s trust, there is a sense that Macdonald must make herself seem invisible. Only once Mabel is focused on eating can Macdonald remind the bird of her presence. As long as she takes it slowly, very slowly indeed, the decisive moment will come:
Regarding the room with simple curiosity, she turned her head and saw me. And jumped. Jumped exactly like a human in surprise. I felt the scratch of her talons and her shock, too, cold and electric. That was the moment. Until a minute ago I was so terrifying I was all that existed. But then she had forgotten me. Only for a fraction of a second, but it was enough. The forgetting was delightful because it was a sign that the hawk was stating to accept me. But there was a deeper, darker thrill. It was that I had been forgotten (pg. 73)
On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald chooses to deal with the process of bereavement by training a goshawk. There is a sense that she is trying to rebuild herself by investing her energy and love in the hawk. A deep relationship develops as she watches Mabel (like a hawk!) and becomes attuned to the smallest of cues and changes in the bird’s posture, feathers and eye movements. All of these actions act as signals thereby enabling Helen to read and anticipate the bird’s mood. As the days pass, Mabel comes to represent everything Macdonald wishes to be, self-assured and released from the weight of grief:
I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.
I was turning into a hawk. (pg. 85)
When the time comes to take her hawk outside (and unhooded) for the first time, Macdonald also appears to be seeing the world afresh as if she is viewing everything through Mabel’s eyes. We follow Helen as she introduces Mabel to a new environment and teaches her to take flight, an activity that emphasises the bird’s capacity for living in the present moment, something Macdonald wishes she could mirror.
H is for Hawk is a multi-layered book, and alongside her quest to train Mabel, Macdonald reflects on the life of T.H. White, author of the Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King. White also penned The Goshawk, a book that captured his own attempts – ill-judged in this instance – to tame and train a young German goshawk named Gos. It’s a text that Macdonald read as a young girl with a developing interest in birds. This could have been jarring, but she skilfully weaves these observations on White’s troubled existence (and passages of White’s writing) alongside her own story to form a richly textured and connected narrative.
In an attempt to suppress his homosexuality, White had tried to conform to the conventional rules of society at the time, to fit in with everyone else, but to no avail. His years as a schoolmaster at Stowe and a fear of war had pushed him to breaking point, and he saw Gos as the living embodiment of all the dark desires he had tried to repress for years:
He had refused humanity in favour of hawks, but he could not escape himself. Once again White was engaged in a battle to civilise the perversity and unruliness within himself. Only now he had put those things in the hawk, and he was trying to civilise them there. He found himself in a strange, locked battle with a bird that was all the things he longed for, but had always fought against. It was a terrible paradox. A proper tragedy. No wonder living with Gos brought him nearly to madness. (pg. 80)
Throughout the course of H is for Hawk, we also learn a great deal about hawks, the history, heritage and myths surrounding falconry, and a sprinkling of the terminology used to describe goshawks. For instance, we discover how a hawk will ‘bate’ by exhibiting ‘a headlong dive of rage and terror’ as it leaps from the fist or perch in wild bid for freedom; how a goshawk in a state of readiness to hunt is in ‘yarak’; how its prey is termed ‘quarry.’
The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. Ultimately though, it is Macdonald’s relationship with Mabel which forms the beating heart of this book. Once the bird takes flight, the sense of relief Helen feels when Mabel returns to her fist is like a balm, something to help ease the pain of grief.
Those of you who know me well may realise I had to pick the right moment to read H is for Hawk – I’ve wanted to read it for months, but I knew it would be an emotional read for me. Here’s the thing…both my parents died suddenly: my father when I was eleven, my mother fifteen years later. I can’t recall much about the years following my father’s death (there was school to deal with), but I was in a very dark place for a year two after my mother died of a brain haemorrhage. I’m not saying that training a hawk would have helped me to cope with my own grief crisis, but I can relate to Helen’s need to have a focal point in her life. Something to help her through that period when she probably felt numb and gripped by a strange kind of madness (she talks about this in the book). I think this is why H is for Hawk resonated so strongly with me as I could relate parts of it to my own life experience.
Irrespective of this, H is for Hawk is a wonderful book, and I’m glad I finally found the right time to read it. I’d like to finish on an upbeat note, so here’s a passage on Mabel at the height of her powers in flight:
I let her go. Her tactical sense is magnificent. She drops from the fist, and sets off, no higher than a hand’s width above the ground, using every inch of the undulating relief as cover, gathering speed until the frosty stubble winks and flashes under her, and she curves over the top of the hill. Then she sets her wings and glides, using gravity and momentum to race downhill, flash up over the top of the hedge in a sudden flowering of cream and white, a good hundred yards away, and then continue down the hedge’s far side, invisible to me. I’m running, all this time, my feet caked with mud, feeling earthbound but transported at the same time. (pgs. 234 – 5)
H is for Hawk is published in the UK by Jonathan Cape. Source: personal copy.