H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald is a rare book – as rare as Mabel the goshawk. Last August I read it in proof for review, expecting it to be a maudlin, self-indulgent memoir. It has since gone on to win the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year, and is currently finding new readers who love it on the other side of the Atlantic. Macdonald’s writing rips up tired conventions and reveals how to write in a tone and language that is both literary and commercial. Needless to say, she won me over.
A unique and beautiful book with a searing emotional honesty, and descriptive language that is unparalleled in modern literature. —Costa Book Award citation
Early one morning, “overtired, overwrought”, Helen Macdonald races from Cambridge to the countryside, thinking that a goshawk sighting will soothe her jangling nerves. Watching a pair of goshawks “soaring above the canopy”, she reminisces about a day she spent with her father when she was a child. She was bored, restless, waiting for a sight of a sparrowhawk, and he explained to her the meaning of patience: “when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it […]. If you want to see hawks you have to be patient”. She brings home in the pocket of her jacket “a small clump of reindeer moss […] a little piece of that branching, pale green-grey lichen that can survive just about anything the world throws at it”. Three weeks later, this little memento becomes imbued with weighty significance when she takes an unexpected telephone call: “it was the reindeer moss I was looking at when my mother called and told me my father was dead”.
Macdonald’s fraught memoir juxtaposes an interior journey through the different stages of grief with an exterior struggle to train a goshawk. She travels from despair to hope, and denial to acceptance; but what rescues the book from cliché is her weird, wonderful style, her intellectual passion, and the associations she forges between wide-ranging topics. H Is for Hawk is partly a literary and biographical study of T. H. White and his books, partly a literary history of goshawks, landscape and culture, and partly a psychological study of grief; the writing is rich and revelatory.
An experienced falconer, Macdonald had never trained a goshawk, a large bird of prey a little short of three inches smaller than a golden eagle, but, after her father’s sudden death, she has a recurring dream about a time when she released a goshawk into the wild: “She opened her wings and in a second was gone. She disappeared over a hedge slant-wise into nothing. It was as if she’d found a rent in the damp Gloucestershire air and slipped through it”. The decision to train one, she proposes, is an “inevitable” one for her to make.
Macdonald’s lyrical prose depicts her inner climate with vivid imagery, fresh similes and metaphors, and loose, run-on sentences that cast familiar places, tasks, and objects in a strange, ethereal light. Here, for example, in a scene of high drama and suspense, Macdonald is simply buying a goshawk from a Belfast breeder on a Scottish quayside.
[A] man was walking towards us, holding two enormous cardboard boxes like a couple of oversized suitcases. […] The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clattering of wings and feet and talons and high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. […] 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. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.
She takes the bundle of wilderness into her home. The goshawk perches in her living room, and she names her Mabel.
According to T. H. White, “the thing about being associated with a hawk is that […] it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest” (The Goshawk, 1951). J. A. Baker followed a pair of peregrine falcons through the Essex landscape for over a decade and he also expressed his observations in psychological terms:
I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch. We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. (The Peregrine, 1967)
Training a goshawk takes time and patience: two of the things which Macdonald does not have at this point in her life. Her University post is coming to an end and she should be sorting out a new job and finding new accommodation. Instead, she retreats from the world, cuts herself off from human contact and lives within the constrained confines of her Cambridge living room; the telephone is unplugged, the curtains are drawn over the cityscape, and her freezer is filled with day-old chick carcasses. In her self-imposed solitude, she watches the hawk, waiting for that moment when it forgets that she is there. It is a stage in hawk training known as “manning”, and it demands total vigilance and stillness. Attempting to become invisible to the hawk to encourage it to take food from her hand, Macdonald empties herself of all thought, and, in a moment of high intensity, she experiences a similar transfer of consciousness as White and Baker: “as if it was another person’s heart, or something else living inside me. Something with a flat, reptilian head, two heavy, down-dropped wings”.
Arranged in two parts, and a “Postscript” of follow-on research, the fragmented memories arranged “like heavy blocks of glass” enact the emotional impact of bereavement on the psyche. Training the goshawk, she narrows her perception to the hawk’s view during a gruesome period of hunting with Mabel in the English countryside; she “slip[s] into the exquisite, wordless sharpness of being a hawk”. Nature seeps over the boundary of her selfhood. She becomes as wild as Mabel: she kills half-dead rabbits caught between Mabel’s talons, pushes bits of animal bones into her waistcoat pocket, and trespasses across land containing pheasant runs. Her humanity is exposed in the compassion she retains for the prey which Mabel brings down: as Mabel gorges on their innards she is obsessed with killing them quickly to prevent their prolonged suffering.
“ ‘The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn […], ‘is to learn something’ ” (T. H. White, The Once and Future King, 1958). While the memoir focuses on a particular time-period, Macdonald’s ideas cover a kaleidoscopic range of topics. As well as falconry, it includes topics as diverse as memory and narration, Arthurian mythology, the cult of chalk and history, aeroplane spotting, and environmentalism. A throwaway line from a male friend who advises her to “ ‘leave goshawks to the goshawk boys’ ”, sparks a literary quest to trace gendered bias in falconry books. She is surprised to learn that goshawk behaviour is described according to negative female traits. Goshawks “ ‘can be moody and sulky’ ”, “ ‘disagreeable’ ”, “ ‘[n]ever was there a more contrary bird’ ”, all of which makes them difficult to “man”. However, she finds that, in seventeenth-century falconry guide-books, they are “ ‘stately and brave […] shye and fearful’, and ‘it is the falconer’s role […] to provide for all his hawk’s needs so that she might have ‘joye in her selfe’ ”.
It is an odd decision to exclude a similar detailed analysis of The Peregrine than is afforded to T. H. White’s writing. Macdonald explains that she turned away from Baker during this period because his quest was a hopeless one, but her description of Baker’s obsessive search for the peregrines in her 2006 study of falcons resembles her own quest for consolation in the natural world: “the diaries of a soul’s journey to grace […] the diaries of a man seeking to become invisible”. She does not accept the view he presents, that “the world was dying, and his hawks were icons of extinction: ours, theirs and his own” (Falcon). White’s shadow hovers over the pages while Macdonald conducts “a quiet conversation, of sorts” with him. She challenges White on his “novice austringer” skills, and takes him to task for ignorant cruelty in the way he trains his goshawk, and she wonders about White and his time alone with Gos. “His young German goshawk was a living expression of all the dark, discreditable desires within himself he’d tried to repress for years: it was a thing fey, fairy, feral, ferocious and cruel”. Rebecca Solnit has written recently about how, as a child, she “disappeared into [books] like someone running into the woods” (The Faraway Nearby, 2013). It is an apt description of the kind of vanishing act that Macdonald accomplishes in her nuanced readings of White’s literature and biography. It is a two-way transference: he haunts her memoir and she inhabits his writing, transitioning smoothly between her voice and the voice she creates for him.
In places, though, it’s as if Macdonald doesn’t trust her reader to make the connections she wants her to see, and the narrative is forced into a narrow pattern that flies in the face of its expansive ideas. The relevance of reindeer moss, for example, is over-emphasised; the opening is set up to show its significant symbolism in the narrative theme of “patience made manifest” that plays out over the course of her journey. At other times, for example, in her etymological detours, she doesn’t push as far as she could go. “Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’ ”. There’s a missed opportunity to complete a link with bereavement and patience through her reading of White, although its meaning resonates within the wider context of loss. The “I” in the passage below is White’s, nonetheless, the patient suffering she depicts is also her own.
I must not look the hawk in the eye. I must not punish the hawk, though it bates, and beats, and my hand is raw with pecks and my face stings from the blows of its bating wings. Hawks cannot be punished. They would rather die than submit. Patience is my only weapon. Patience. Derived from patior. Meaning to suffer. It is an ordeal. I shall triumph.
In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer On Writing (2003), Margaret Atwood considers “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring someone or something back from the dead”. In hawk mythology, hawks carry messages from the dead to the living. Macdonald developed an interest in falconry as a child, and it was as a child that she first read The Goshawk. In her “archaeology of grief” happy memories of bird-watching with her father punctuate the narrative: “my dad had been my dad, but also my friend”. Re-reading The Goshawk, she follows a path back into the woods of her childhood reading, and to the desire she once had for a different ending to White’s book; that his lost Gos would return to him. When it’s time for Macdonald to send Mabel from her fist up into the sky, to wait and watch for her return, she is fearful that she will fly off forever. Metaphorically, she is also flying with Mabel to bring her father back from the “tangled woods”.
It is to be expected in a memoir about a hawk, which is also about grief, that the hawk would represent flight of some kind, after all, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul’ ”, but the shifting symbolism of Macdonald’s goshawk is not so easily defined. In the first part, it is perhaps hope deferred. When her father dies suddenly, time stops, and she slips into the space between that part of her story which has ended and the new one which is not yet written: training a goshawk is a bridge over the chasm in her selfhood. The second stage in hawk training is termed “carriage”, walking outside with it perched on her falconer’s glove in order to reintroduce it to the world; the goshawk is perhaps the outward manifestation of her grief in the manner of the young girl in Anne Hébert’s poem, “The Tomb of Kings”, who carries her heart on her fist in the form of a blind falcon. Fixing a single meaning onto the goshawk, though, limits the imaginative scope that Macdonald’s empathetic writing opens for the reader; it is also impossible to pin it down. It is easier to establish what the goshawk does not represent: a romantic way of thinking about the natural world.
While the goshawk is an ancient survivor—Macdonald points out that in looking at a goshawk you are looking at history—she discourages a nostalgic longing for landscapes of the past, for rural idylls that exist only in the imagination. In Falcon (2006), she describes how falcons “can’t be seen except through what anthropologist Franz Boas describes as your Kulturbrille, the invisible mental lens your own culture gives you through which you see the world”. Her writing about landscape and history and memory is situated within a movement in nature writing that reframes the tradition of writing about the self in relation to the natural world, such as in writing by contemporary writers, including Robert Macfarlane, and Kathleen Jamie. Following a memorial for her father, an event which marks a turning point for her emotionally, Macdonald realises she has been looking in the wrong places for consolation:
I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. […] ‘Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’ Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. […] Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.
H Is for Hawk is a mature, accomplished work: a touchstone for future memoirs, bibliomemoirs, and writing that deals with the natural environment and the self.
[Link to Original Review- ‘Grief and the Goshawk’, in TLS, Oct 29 2014]