“H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

I had my copy of H is for Hawk for about six months, before I felt ready to read it. It is – very famously, now – the story of how Helen Macdonald trained a goshawk whilst grieving for her father, in amongst numerous other, interwoven elements: an understanding of wildness; the history of falconry; and a study of the author T H White (author of Sword in the Stone).

I’m always rather wary of stories about grief, particularly daughters grieving for their fathers. My own died a few months after I left university, after six years of battling cancer and various other illnesses, and,  at the risk of sounding melodramatic, it really broke me. I spent a lot of time at parties with people I didn’t know, or screaming into pillows, and I believed for some time that my personality had disintegrated completely with his death. It was lonely and chaotic, and although I can look back it all now fairly neutrally, I didn’t feel very proud of myself for a very long time.

Rather than raking over that experience in a painful way, though, I found HM’s book incredibly comforting – like finding a kindred spirit. The way she articulates her loss is simultaneously deeply personal and universal. It is very much her story, about her relationship with her father, and as such it cannot be used as a shorthand description of anyone else’s grief. Having said that, there is so much that is recognisable about the raging, loving, insightful way she expresses her loss. The fact that grief happens to everyone but that you feel it alone; it is not even really something to be shared with the members of your family, each of whom will experience their own pain, which may be very different to yours. She describes how she was ravenous for material, for love, for anything to stop the loss, which led her to falling in love with a man who ran a mile when he worked out how broken I was. She talks about that horrifying moment when you realise with a thump that you will never see the dead person again, or hear them speak – the sudden permanence of it. She says that, Ever since my father died, I’d had these bouts of derealisation, strange episodes where the world became unrecognisable, like Alice falling down the rabbit-hole into darkness. Her spatial awareness disappears, she finds herself crashing her father’s car again and again, and occasionally wonders if she might be going mad. That was all very familiar, and I have never see it articulated so well before: I remember very clearly walking through remote parts of London in the early hours of the morning, looking around in detachment and feeling like the city was entirely surreal, nothing to do with me, and that I’d lost my place in the world. She puts it all into words in a way I wish I’d been able to.

Layered on top of that like a piece of tracing paper is HM’s relationship with her goshawk, Mabel. In the first few pages, she recalls a day her father took her to look for sparrowhawks when she was nine, and taught her about the importance of patience. As a child she poured over books about the art of falconry, learning the lexicon and modelling herself on aristocratic men from centuries gone by who had tamed hunting birds and forged that link between the human world and the wild. Shortly after her father’s death and blind with pain, she decides to train a goshawk of her own. It is not a bird she has always had a natural affinity with, she says – there is something alien, reptilian and murderous about them – and when she first encounters the giant hawk which she had requested in a windy Scottish car park, she balks. Instead she pleads with the breeder, asking if she can take the smaller hawk which was meant for someone else, and with which she felt an instant connection. He agrees, and she takes her hawk – Mabel – home.

What follows is a thrilling account of the painstaking process of taming a goshawk; a story about how crucial Mabel becomes to Helen’s re-entry to the world after her father’s death; and a loving, funny, respectful description of Mabel herself – not anthropomorphised, but confounding HM’s expectations of a sulky, serious hunting bird by playing with balls of paper, and displaying recognisably happy “moods”. Their relationship is fascinating; HM describes how she had found herself become more hawk-like in Mabel’s company, more wild and less willing to engage with people. Hawks have, she says, always been linked to that liminal space between life and death – messengers between the two realms. Perhaps her proximity to Mabel was a way to find her father, and perhaps it was a way of annihilating her human identity in a bid to manage the pain of loss. Either way their lives are knit together, and they fly through the book in tandem, and occasionally – dangerously – as a single entity.

Also layered across the book is a study of T.H White, famous for writing The Sword in the Stone, and the less well-known The Goshawk. HM had first read The Goshawk as a child, and finds herself revisiting the book as Mabel comes into her life. In the most simple terms, the story of White and his hawk, Gos, unfolds in parallel to the burgeoning relationship between HM and Mabel. White was a deeply tortured figure: he had a violent and miserable childhood which gave way to sadistic tendencies in his adult life. He poured all of his frustrations and longing for affection into his flawed, often cruel, training of Gos, and in doing so enacted what HM identifies as being a classic tragedy. Her portrait of him is clear-sighted, frank, and tender – and instinctively informs her own journey with Mabel, which, you hope, will follow an entirely different trajectory.

More than anything, and notwithstanding her proximity to the wilderness, HM comes across as a humane, funny, resilient woman. This may be about grief, but I can’t stress enough that this is not a miserable book. It is of course difficult to be in such close proximity to someone’s suffering, but it is such an intelligent, strange, vital story, given wings by HM’s turn of phrase, and the omnipresent Mabel. Grief can be a dehumanising, lonely thing, and I loved the idea of HM inhabiting a goshawk as a way to cope with it; before bringing herself back to earth to live among people once again.

H is for Hawk

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