Reviews For Friends #24: H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

The author’s childlike fascination with her subject is beguiling and infectious

This grimly fascinating, genre-bending memoir takes the reader on a strangely gripping journey through love and loss, memory and mythology, nature and psychoanalysis as the author comes to terms with the death of her father.

As a child, Helen Macdonald was enchanted by birds. Her father, a photo-journalist and fellow ‘watcher’, teaches his daughter the art of patience and, as an adult, Macdonald realises her dream of flying hawks, later becoming a Cambridge academic. When her father dies, Macdonald becomes obsessed with the idea of training a hawk of her own. When goshawk Mabel comes into her life, purchased on a ravaged Scottish quayside in the middle of the night, Helen begins a long and challenging journey of taming that leads to a deeply painful - and truly brave - examination of her own self.

Macdonald conjures English landscapes with jaw dropping dexterity. There are bony shoulders and blades of flint, brumous, pewter light and papery skies. Such vivid prose is injected with mad archaic falconry language, a world of jesses, creance and muting, lending an historical quality that makes the memoir almost timeless - the wild hills, the sleepy and somewhat quaint Cambridge setting, the author’s limited interaction with the world outside of her university lodgings and, of course, her beloved woodland all have a fictional feel.

The introduction of the goshawk into the story is a thrilling, almost illicit encounter involving a long nighttime drive and £800 in banknotes - the unfolding ‘relationship’ between the pair is equally thrilling, Macdonald delivering the tale with all the taut suspense of a crime novel. The reader is desperate for Mabel to fly for the first time - and when the moment comes, after much struggle, it is as though we can see her take flight, so accurate and vital is Macdonald’s recounting. She rather astutely likens the act to gambling but with stakes ‘infinitely bloodier’.

The bloodthirsty hunting and killing that permeates the next leg of the story is visceral and brutal, as though Macdonald is externalising her emotional wounds. But while painfully sad at points, it is undeniably exciting. Your blood pounds along with the austringer’s as you too feel the wind whistle in your ears, feel the tug and scratch of the hedgerow. We are crouched down at Macdonald’s side as she stares at a bloodied mammal, ‘this horrible, mesmerising, seeping claret filling up the space, growing jelly-like as it meets the air’. As Macdonald undergoes the many challenges of taming her hawk she soon finds herself becoming the hawk: not merely crawling through the undergrowth and breaking the necks of rabbits, but withdrawing herself from society. Jumpy and untrusting. What follows is a raw account of depression.

H is for Hawk has an additional story running alongside Macdonald’s, that of renowned but misunderstood author TH White - famous for The Sword in the Stone, he also wrote The Goshawk. Published in 1951, it tells the story of a similar journey White embarked upon in training his own goshawk, Gos. Macdonald, slightly obsessed with the man having devoured The Goshawk many times as a child, draws parallels between her own journey and White’s story, reimagining his intimate world for the reader in a way that, helpfully, provides an avenue for much needed historical context to hawking for those of us with no prior knowledge of the subject. While White’s story is clearly of interest to the author - a repressed ex-schoolmaster, both are lonely and alienated figures - the unrelenting critical analysis of his life and works starts to tire as the memoir draws on, losing relevance. It is therefore a small relief when Macdonald loosens her grip on the man as she moves through the stages of grief, regaining our attention once again with her arresting descriptions of the dark world of the hawk.

As a reader you will Macdonald to come to some sort of resolution within herself and when, with Mabel safely installed in an aviary for a summer of moulting, she happens upon the key to her father’s flat you sense that moment has come. Naturally, Madonald’s evocation of that moment of realisation is beautiful and powerful.
‘I held the cardboard and felt its scissor-cut edge, and for the first time I understood the shape of my grief. I could feel exactly how big it was … if you want to see something very much, you just have to be patient and wait. There was no patience in my waiting, but time had passed all the same, and worked its careful magic. And now, holding the card in my hand and feeling its edges, all the grief had turned into something different. It was simply love.’

Macdonald’s writing is striking and lingers. She describes the acts of hunting and killing as a nature scientist; the way in which she portrays her grief, too, is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. But cerebral musings are shot through with such blinding bursts of emotional insight that bring poetry to this most unusual - and remarkable - of reads. It is a comfort to find that, in the end, Macdonald finds warmth again, exorcised from the ice of the goshawk’s world.


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