H is for Hawk was a much talked about book during the latter part of 2014, the more reviews I saw for it the more I wanted to read it myself. Winner of the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, H is for Hawk is a wonderful blend of biography and natural history. It is also a poignantly written memoir of grief and the painful clawing back to the surface of reality that comes after a loss of a loved one.
“Sometimes when light dawns it simply illuminates how dismal circumstances have become. Every morning I wake at five and have thirty seconds’ lead-time before despair crashes in. I don’t dream of my father anymore; I don’t dream of people at all. I walk over winter sandflats, past storm-pools of fog-reflecting water packed with migrant birds stranded by the weather, unable to fly south for winter. Sometimes I dream I am climbing trees that crack and fall, or sailing tiny boats that overturn in frozen seas. They are pathetic dreams. I don’t need an analyst to explain them. I know now that I’m not trusting anyone or anything anymore. And that it is hard to live for long periods without trusting anyone or anything. It’s like living without sleep; eventually it will kill you.”
The loss of a parent, no matter what age you are, and where you are in your life, is like having the rug pulled from beneath you, you struggle to adjust to the world as it is now. Helen Macdonald’s grief is tangible throughout her writing, making this a beautifully personal account. The writing is quite glorious, a real celebration of the English countryside and the ancient and noble art of falconry. Falconry has very much been a man’s recreation, originally existing within a world of privilege, tied up with hunting, war and ultimately death.
When Helen Macdonald’s beloved, photo-journalist father died unexpectedly, her grief knocks her sideways. Having been a professional falconer, Helen becomes obsessed with the idea of training a goshawk. Goshawks are different to other birds of prey, trickier, wilder creatures’ altogether. Shortly after her father’s death, Helen finds herself handing over an envelope of £800 to a stranger on a Scottish quayside for a female goshawk, Helen later calls Mabel.
Back in her college house in Cambridge, Helen fills the freezer full of Hawk food, spreads an oil cloth on the floor, unplugs the phone and asks friends not to call, and gets down to the very delicate business of training a goshawk. Over the coming weeks and months, there are highs and lows, tears and doubts – but bit by bit Mabel begins to respond to Helen’s intelligent, tender and knowledgeable handling. During this process, Helen becomes a little wild, and untamed herself, even taking on some of the behaviours of her hawk. In training Mabel Helen learns more about goshawks than she ever knew and begins, and having been taken apart by her grief, slowly starts to rebuild herself.
“I roll a magazine into a tube and peer at her through it as if it were a telescope. She ducks her head to look at me through the hole. She pushes her beak into it as far as it will go, biting the empty air inside. Putting my mouth to the side of my paper telescope I boom into it: “Hello Mabel.” She pulls her beak free. All the feathers on her forehead are raised. She shakes her tail rapidly from side to side and shivers with happiness.
An obscure shame grips me. I had a fixed idea of what a goshawk was, just as those Victorian falconers had, and it was not was not big enough to hold what goshawks are. No one had ever told me goshawks played.”
Interspersed with an account of the painstaking work of training a goshawk, juggling an academic career, preparing for her father’s memorial, and coping with her sometimes unbearable grief – is a touching biography of the novelist T H White. T H White, attempted to train a goshawk and published a book about it in 1951, he was primarily a fantasy novelist, a former school master and a lonely, tortured man, whose book The Goshawk, Helen had first read as a child. I found Helen Macdonald’s portrayal of T H White’s life immensely poignant. He was a tragically, damaged man, who didn’t have the same affinity with and understanding of his hawk, Gos. Now as she works to attune herself completely with her hawk, she begins to re-read The Goshawk, and in doing so gains a deeper understanding and sympathy for a man whose book had always puzzled her.
Challenges still lay ahead for Helen and Mabel, not least the delicate balance of flying free – judging it just right, the fear of losing her beautiful hawk a constant niggle in the back of her mind. In the midst of this, Helen’s academic post comes to an end, requiring her to leave the college house she loves. Helen and Mabel become a familiar sight in Cambridge when Helen has to familiarise Mabel with the everyday noises of Cambridge suburbs.
This is an utterly wonderful book, everyone should read it. I am not a big reader of non-fiction, 2014 was especially low on non-fiction reads, but H is for Hawk, which was my penultimate book for the year was simply outstanding.