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 woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail.
The fascinations of childhood are often intense, burning passions, with their devotees ravenously devouring information concerning their subject of interest. For many, this may be dinosaurs and all things prehistoric, the gunslingers of the American West, sports cars, ancient myths and legends, or something similarly expansive. For Helen Macdonald, it was birds of prey and falconry – that archaic pursuit which, for centuries, dwelt within the remit of the well-to-do and stood as a measure of one’s social standing. She immersed herself in the lore of falconry, and – the classic on the topic – T.H. White’s The Goshawk. H is for Hawk is the story of Macdonald’s passage through the turbulence of grief by means of her training of a young female goshawk, and the indelible connection they came to possess. It is a trenchant self-reflection of the agonies of loss, told through Macdonald’s recounting of her own experience of training this (in)famously irascible of birds of prey, and her examination of the talented, yet deeply flawed, T.H. White’s training of his own – albeit behaviourally different – goshawk.
I read that after denial comes grief. Or anger. Or guilt. I remember worrying about which stage I was at. I wanted to taxonomise the process, order it, make it sensible. But there was no sense, and I didn’t recognise any of these emotions at all.
H is for Hawk charts the impact of the sudden death of Macdonald’s father, with the resultant grief robbing virtually everything of its significance, joy and sense to her. Yet she finds solace through immersion in the natural world, retaining a sense of understanding for such things as the flow of a river. It is in such a state that she decides to train a goshawk, and purchases one for £800 from a Scottish quayside. Laid low by her anguish, Macdonald draws resolve through the training of and connection with her hawk, and sees in it the qualities she wished she possessed: freedom from the emotional wreckage and diffidence which plagues her and the comfort of solitude. The hawk stimulates a renewed sense of purpose and requires Macdonald to again venture outdoors and among society through the need to acclimatise the hawk to new surroundings and experiences. This conditioning of the hawk runs in tandem with Macdonald’s simultaneous process of becoming more accustom to others and overcoming her nascent agoraphobia. However, through absorption in the idyllic countryside in which Macdonald and her hawk exercise the bird’s natural predilections and hunt, she reverts to shutting herself away from society and attempts to derive solace from the purity of the natural world.
I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. 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.
When the hunt is successful, Macdonald’s satisfaction with the kill is not a result of any sense of cruelty or sadistic indulgence, but rather for the very fact of her hawk’s success. Yet, the act of killing and administering the coup de grâce to the injured prey elicits acknowledgement of her own mortality.
As the reader of this review may have gathered from the preceding rambling verbosity, this is an emotionally intense book. The writing is reflective, eloquent and searing, if, at times, a difficult read for any who may have endured similar loss or who have deigned to consider what it would be like to lose someone close to their heart. Consequently, on occasion, it is not entirely a pleasant read, with the reader drawn through the experience of the throes and agonies of grief-derived depression, with its corollary of loneliness and detachment. But this is an honest account, and doesn’t shirk from what the author readily admits are occasional preposterous and absurd worries and concerns, nor from the internal and unspoken paroxysms of anger which sometimes directed themselves at passers-by for the slightest perceived indiscretion. Nonetheless, Macdonald powerfully conveys her unending enthralment in the grace of the hawk in flight, her enchantment with nature, and her love for her goshawk.
The most riveting and compelling sections are Macdonald’s recounting and analyses of the life and experiences of T. H. White. His is a strand which runs in parallel with Macdonald’s own, as a result of his changing influence on her experience of falconry throughout her life. The passages in which she tells the tale of this troubled man are done so with the aptitude of a fine storyteller. White’s was a fearful upbringing amidst emotionally distant and turbulent parents, and Macdonald explores the life and eventual literary success of this conscientious, scholarly, talented, repressed sadist and homosexual, and his account of his attempt to train a goshawk – ‘Gos’ – which so enraged and exasperated Helen Macdonald the child, but drew in the adult.
The day-book that records White’s long, lost battle with Gos is not simply about his hawk. Underneath it all is history, and sexuality, and childhood, and landscape, and mastery, and medievalism, and war, and teaching and learning and love.
H is for Hawk is a frank and reflective narrative of the wildly differing experiences of falconry of two troubled scholars. It is a gripping account of loss, trial and something approaching recovery. It is a tale of goshawk training, and the solace a grieving daughter found in exercising her lifelong passion and the attempt made by a long-deceased former schoolmaster to make a battered goshawk love him. It is reading suffused with grief and reconciliation, which will have one swiftly turning pages and, perhaps, imbued with a burning desire to take up falconry and immerse oneself in the countryside.
H is for Hawk is Available Now. Buy It Here. Image Rights; Random House.