H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
When I saw Helen Macdonald speak at a nature conference, she recounted a conversation with a Samuel Johnson Prize judge. S/he had remarked that Macdonald's was three books in one: a memoir of grief after her father's unexpected death, a biography of T. H. White, and an account of falconry experiments with Mabel the goshawk. Macdonald quipped that the description made her book sound like washing powder, but it's accurate nonetheless, and explains why the book won the Samuel Johnson Prize (the first memoir to do so) and is shortlisted for the Costa Biography award.
|H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald|
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster|
|Summary: In this completely original blend of memoir, biography and nature writing, Macdonald reveals how falconry helped her heal after her father's sudden death.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 320||Date: July 2014|
|Publisher: Jonathan Cape|
|External links: Author's website|
The particular mixture of elements that goes into H is for Hawk strikes me as providing an entirely new model for contemporary nature writing. I have read another rather similar book, Otter Country (2011) by Miriam Darlington, which combines personal anecdote, facts about otters, and biographical information about both Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, and Gavin Maxwell (Ring of Bright Water), but Darlington's is more a travelogue than an introspective narrative. Macdonald's works just that little bit better.
Macdonald's father was a photojournalist and plane spotter. He taught her to be a watcher, and especially to look to the sky. Ever since childhood she loved birdwatching and falconry, two complementary but sometimes contradictory activities. Early on she read the celebrated literature of falconry, including T. H. White's The Goshawk. She was a history tutor at Cambridge when the news came that her father had died of a heart attack.
Loss pushed Macdonald close to the edge of mental illness: 'It was about this time a kind of madness drifted in. Looking back, I think I was never truly mad. More mad north-northwest. I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always, but sometimes it was striking to me how similar they were.' She concocted a plan to raise a goshawk for falconry – an experience she does not recommend as bereavement therapy. And thus she found herself waiting on a frigid Scottish dock with an envelope stuffed with £20 notes, awaiting her goshawk's arrival on the ferry.
Mabel was very much an individual, initially wary but later playful and even affectionate. She sat on a perch and 'watched' television with Macdonald in the evenings, peering at her through paper tubes. Still, especially on hunting trips when Mabel took rabbits and pheasants with one lightning-fast swoop, there was no forgetting this was a wild creature. Indeed, 'the hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.'
Even in her fog of grief, Macdonald could see she was using the hawk for complex psychological reasons: 'Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn't human at all.' Especially after her job contract came to an end, she withdrew from humanity and rejected domesticity. 'I'd…taken all the traits of goshawks…and made them my own. I was nervous, highly strung, paranoid, prone to fits of terror and rage.'
Throughout, Macdonald compares her own experience to that of T. H. White, who, in the 1930s, was a lonely schoolteacher at Stowe – and a closeted homosexual with sadistic tendencies. He, too, raised a goshawk, but it was something of a disaster. Macdonald recognises the ways in which, for White, too, flying a hawk was a means of exploring one's own wild depths and testing the links between self and nature. I've never read anything else by or about White, but Macdonald makes his sad, circumscribed life fascinating.
Macdonald's metaphor-rich language is part of what makes the book sing. Her prose is simply exquisite, as in 'Vast flocks of fieldfares netted the sky, turning it to something strangely like a sixteenth-century sleeve sewn with pearls' and 'It's turned cold, cold so that saucers of ice lie in the mud, blank and crazed as antique porcelain.' Every depiction, no matter how short, shows great care, such as 'feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression'.
If this was only a nature book, it would be a classic. Yet it is also a profound meditation on grief and recovery. 'The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten…You see that life will become a thing made of holes…And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps.' Mabel – 'more than a hawk…a protecting spirit. My little household god' – was one way of filling gaps.
H is for Helen, her hawk, and a haphazard healing process. 'Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don't get to say when or how.' This wonderful book (a beautiful physical object, too) – ranks as one of my favourites of 2014.
Further reading suggestion: The Iceberg: A Memoir by Marion Coutts, another of the year's best memoirs, shares the theme of grief. Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann is a story of ornithology giving hope in desperate situations. And what do you know, there's a goshawk in The Sword in the Stone by T H White.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is in the Costa Book Awards 2014.
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