(Just look at that cover design! Good enough reason to buy it.)
Some books fall neatly into genres; some refuse to be categorised, and ‘H is for Hawk’ is one of them. When her father died, Helen Macdonald, who had been obsessed with birds of prey since a child, decided to train her own goshawk. And what we have as a result of her grief and loss is this absolutely riveting book.
‘We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost.‘
In one sense, in accounting her experience training the goshawk, this book is about the beauty of nature. But not as we imagine, or as ardent environmentalists and vociferous vegans would advertise. Macdonald is dealing with a predatory bird —’things of death and blood and gore’— and she does not flinch from all that entails, whether she’s detailing the first kill she observes —‘deep in the muddled darkness six copper pheasant feather glowed in a cradle of blackthorn’— or explaining the feathers between her goshawk’s eyes and beak — ‘crines are for catching blood so that it will dry, and flake and fall away’. She feeds it rabbits, and day-old chicks, and there is no fuss even though she herself rescues flies and sidesteps spiders. When Megan (her hawk) kills, it’s ‘stamp stamp, gripe, stamp, foot, clutch, stamp’. Nature-loving, yes, but not a nature that can be leashed, tamed, and made into cute videos.
In exploring her journey with her hawk Macdonald also does a semi-literary-biography of T. H. White’s ‘The Goshawk’, weaving her imaginings of White’s struggles to tame-and-yet-not-tame a hawk and her own journey in training and loving Megan. I have never read White myself, but in ‘H is for Hawk’ he comes across as a deeply troubled man, a closet homosexual and sadist fighting who he is, and upon a wild, unpredictable goshawk he places his hopes and worth. ‘Need to excel in order to be loved,’ he jots down, and goes off to prove himself, to himself. His story is, quite honestly, a pain to read; I cannot imagine living it.
But this book is also a semi-memoir about dealing with her father’s death, and Macdonald punctuates the story of training Megan with thoughts on death and life and love and bereavement. She feels deeply —deeper than this reader can understand— and it shines through. ‘But what I should have realised, too, on those northern roads, is that what the mind does after losing one’s father isn’t just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with.’ And the new self in question: ‘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.’
So these three main themes, among others, intertwine and overlap artfully; she can speak of a condor hide at a gallery in the same breath as her animal and her bereavement. ‘I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing — not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?’
If I could, I would summarise the plot. But there isn’t one. Things happen, and also nothing happens. Mabel’s mass goes up and down, eventually reaching her ‘flying weight’. Macdonald’s emotional life is even more volatile, and she finds a kind of closure-peace towards the end, joining the ranks of humankind once again, though that was never the point anyway. She reflects, and quotes, and feels. She describes the goshawk’s flight and speed and hunting pattern. She hopes, she bears up, she regrets. She finds accomplishment when Mabel hops from a perch to her hand, and devastation when she does not. She brings you into her inner life, but also into a wider, wilder life, and that is what makes this book both unforgettable and indescribable.
I am not a nature-lover by any stretch of the imagination (my ideal vacation is anywhere with modern plumbing and a stack of books) which is why I took so long to get down to borrowing ‘H is for Hawk’, despite it being on my to-read list for months and being shifted upwards with every other good review. But I loved it.
‘I know now what those dreams in spring had meant, the ones of a hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world. I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.‘
P. S. If you check out Helen Macdonald’s Twitter feed, there are some photos of Mabel. She is gorgeous.
P. P. S. I know I sound like I’m gushing, but I actually gave it 4 stars, not 5, on Goodreads. The reason for this is probably the same reason a few people gave it 2 stars and called it overrated: her writing style is not for everyone. She has long, beautifully-wrought sentences at times, but she also has a lot of short non-sentences, clauses, phrases, repetitions that may sound like honest emotion to one person, but like a painful attempt to craft a distinct voice to another. For me it worked when she was crafting a scene (birds do move in fits and starts), but it sounded forced when she was expressing her feelings about her father’s death.