Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is no ordinary memoir. But then buying a goshawk as a fledgling, raising it in a front room and training it to hunt wild game is no ordinary pastime. Part grief memoir, part nature study, part biography of the writer T.H.White, the book cannot be classified into any one genre. If the publicists at Jonathan Cape had any anxieties about marketing such a hybrid they need not have worried; as Tim Dee puts it “No one who has looked up to see a bird of prey cross the sky could read it and not have their life shifted.”
When the author’s father dies and her life shifts into the hazy unfamiliar landscape of grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of buying and training a goshawk – the most formidable of hawks to train and a bird she had never previously wanted to fly despite many years as a falconer. Compared to graceful and noble falcons, goshawks were “murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign.” They were “things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets”. MacDonald writes, “I had never seen anything of myself reflected in their solitudinous, murderous eyes…But the world had changed, and so had I.”
By the time she travels to Scotland and buys a young goshawk from an Irish breeder, we have become intimate with Macdonald and her obsession. She has introduced us to her grief, her reminiscences of watching for hawks with her father, her love of nature and her childhood fascination for stories of animals, despite them ending in death and disappointment: Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, Adams’ Watership Down and White’s The Goshawk. White’s training of his goshawk was doomed to fail, so Macdonald’s ambition of training her own seems perilously over-ambitious. The exchange of money on a quayside in Scotland for a live creature in a box has an appropriate sense of madness and the clandestine; we become conspirators, companions on this crazy adventure, irretrievably involved and hooked on the outcome. We share the excitement when the hawk is brought home and has “filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.”
H is for Hawk is divided into two; the first part, including the early training of the hawk Mabel, is deftly intertwined and contrasted with White’s life and his training of Gos. The use of the present tense gives an immediacy to the action, a sense that we are not only witnesses, but participants. This is compulsive reading – there is a palpable sense of anticipation in ascent towards what seems like an inevitable descent to disaster or, at best, disappointment. With its beautifully illustrated dustjacket featuring a linocut hawk by Chris Wormell, the book sits in the room between readings like Mabel herself, demanding attention, drawing the reader back to the next milestone in her taming. We become acquainted with the bloody nature of feeding and hunting, and the ancient language of falconry – bating, hoods, jesses, yarak, austringer.
Macdonald’s descriptions of her hawk enthral:
Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.
In part two, amongst the woody copses and thorny thickets during Mabel’s first free flights and first kills, we realise that there is no inevitable disaster, the feeling of descent is less Macdonald’s despair and loss, but that of White’s as his Gos flies away.
This is a beautifully-written book about loss, self-identity, the strange things we think and do when grieving and the solace of nature. We are drawn into our own experience and imagination, learn about the feeling of flying and the margins between earth and air, and between being human and hawk. Our lives shift.
Josephine Jules Andrews