“There’s a gazillion reservations against this book,” the nice man from the library told me as he handed the most beautiful hardback into my slightly sweaty-with-excitement waiting hands. I could believe it. I had waited two months to read this book; two months of fingering it longingly in Waterstones. Two months of putting it back on the shelf with near superhuman resolve. I had heard so many good thing about this book, found myself entranced by the stern, yellow eyes of the hawk illustration on the cover. It fit everything I loved into one neat little package: nature, birds, stunning writing, a personal journey, challenge, life. There was danger in this, I knew. I could be expecting so much that the book could never live up to those expectations, it could only disappoint.
Did it? No, I’m glad to say that didn’t happen at all. In fact this is a book which lived up to all of my expectations, which makes it quite unique.
H is for Hawk is a memoir, written by Helen Macdonald in the wake of her father’s unexpected death. It’s also an account of her decision to train a goshawk (Mabel) and how this interlinks with her grief following her father’s death and the writer, T.H. White, and his own attempts to train a goshawk (Gos) and his written account of those events. It’s a complex piece of interlinking which a poorer writer would struggle with but Macdonald manages to maintain in delicate balance.
It’s a stunningly written book. There are times when the landscape leaps off the page, and you can feel the fear and tension as Macdonald struggles (and doesn’t) with her decision to train a goshawk. An experienced falconer, Macdonald had been put off training goshawks as they’re notoriously difficult, yet something happened after her father’s death that precipitated her on this journey. That she loves the birds is quite apparent, as can be seen from the description here:
“In real life goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much, much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail. You might spend a week in a forest full of gosses and never see one, just traces of their presence. A sudden hush, followed by the calls of terrified woodland birds, and a sense of something moving just beyond vision. Perhaps you’ll find a half-eaten pigeon sprawled in a burst of white feathers on the forest floor. Or you might be lucky: walking in a foggy ride at dawn you’ll turn your head and catch a split-second glimpse of a bird hurtling past and away, huge taloned feet held loosely clenched, eyes set on a distant target. A split second that stamps the image indelibly on your brain and leaves you hungry for more. Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often and you don’t get to say when or how.”
Yet despite this love, at times she regretted following the path of the goshawk. This becomes particularly apparent as she sinks into depression, using the hawk as a way of hiding from her life and her responsibilities. She desires to disappear, to become the hawk in all its bloodied majesty, wild and untouchable by human society. She describes her descent into hawk-fuelled madness here:
“Nothing was wrong with the hawk. She wasn’t sick. She was a baby. She fell asleep because that’s what babies do. I wasn’t sick either. But I was orphaned and desperately suggestible, and I didn’t know what was happening to me. For years I’d scoffed at White’s notion of hawk-training as a rite of passage. Overblown, I’d thought. Loopy. Because it wasn’t like that. I knew it wasn’t. I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But whilst 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.”
As Macdonald chronicles her own passage through Mabel’s training, so she also critiques White’s journey, commenting on his failures and extrapolating from his stories the truth that underpinned his life. At her trade Macdonald is an historian and she shows her skill here in unpicking T.H. White the man from his stories and, perhaps most importantly, from the bones of his memoir The Goshawk in which he describes the terrible efforts, misguided and in some ways quite cruel, to train his own goshawk. What motivated the man, Macdonald seeks to uncover. As she describes here:
“Feral. He wanted to be free. He wanted to be ferocious. He wanted to be fey, a fairy, ferox. All those elements of himself he’d pushed away, his sexuality, his desire for cruelty, for mastery: all these were suddenly there in the figure of the hawk.”
It’s a convincing story, perhaps more so because it is wrapped up in Macdonald’s examination of her own behaviour, the way she projected her desires through her hawk, through the training of the hawk, how she used it to disguise the terrible state she was in, that she wasn’t coping in the wake of her father’s death. Her love of her father really bleeds through the pages, you can feel her sadness, her loneliness, the loss of identity that spawns from the sudden exit of someone so pivotal in her life. It will be a familiar story to many, but the way she deals with it is not. It is a story of love and loss, one which plays out in the training of the hawk, Mabel, who it must be mentioned is such a pivotal part of the story, and for whom Macdonald feels such love that she leaps from the page in stunning technicolour:
“The feathers down her front are the colour of sunned newsprint, of tea-stained paper, and each is marked darkly towards its tip with a leaf-bladed spearhead, so from her throat to her feet she is patterned with a shower of falling raindrops. Her wings are the colour of stained oak, their covert feathers edged in palest teak, barred flight-feathers folded quietly beneath. And there’s a strange grey tint to her that is felt, rather than seen, a kind of silvery light like a rainy sky reflected from the surface of a river. She looks new. Looks as if the world cannot touch her. As if everything that exists and is observed rolls off like drops of water from her oiled and close-packed feathers. And the more I sit with her, the more I marvel at how reptilian she is. The lucency of her pale, round eyes. The waxy yellow skin about her Bakelite-black beak, The way she snakes her small head from side to side to focus on distant objects. Half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a think hammered of metal and scales and glass. But then I see ineffably birdlike things about her, familiar qualities that turn her into something loveable and close.”
It is a stunning book. At first I thought it was so-so and then I realised that I’d swallowed 150 pages and barely noticed and I didn’t want to put the book down at all. H is for Hawk is everything that Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is not. It is honest and outwardly focused. It is a journey in which you see the protagonist, Macdonald, suffer trials and grow. It is not mawkish or self-pitying; there is anger but it is directed, diverted, channelled, so that it becomes something wonderful. It is a story as much about the hawk, Mabel, as much about Macdonald’s father who was a great photographer, as much about T.H. White and his flaws and trials. It is about England and the spectre of war, the terrible abuses heaped upon a child (White) and the terrible ways in which he tried to find comfort and love where none could be found. It is stunningly written, heart-stirring and wonderful. A deserving prize-winner and a book I would be honoured to have sitting on my shelves, a book to return to over again.