H Is for Hawk
July 31, 2014
Winner of the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize Shortlisted for the 2014 Costa Biography Award '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 deep woodland, not gardens, they're the birdwatchers' dark grail.' As a child Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer. She learned the arcane terminology and read all the classic books, including T. H. White's tortured masterpiece, The Goshawk, which describes White's struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest. When her father dies and she is knocked sideways by grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for u800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals. 'To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so gain the ability to predict what it will do next. Eventually you don't see the hawk's body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. The hawk's apprehension becomes your own. As the days passed and I put myself in the hawk's wild mind to tame her, my humanity was burning away.' Destined to be a classic of nature writing, H is for Hawk is a record of a spiritual journey - an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald's struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk's taming and her own untaming. At the same time, it's a kaleidoscopic biography of the brilliant and troubled novelist T. H. White, best known for The Once and Future King. It's a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to try to reconcile death with life and love.
I have always tended to be a little cynical about prize winning books however an interest in falconry and comments I heard about it made me feel as though this one might be a good idea. H is for Hawk is by Helen Macdonald who is described as “a writer, poet, historian, illustrator and naturalist“; having read the book I think she could add some other interests/talents to that list. The book is both wide-ranging and deep as well as being highly readable. It manages to cover so many parts of our lives both from the distant past and from our current and troubled modern lives. Sure – it is about coming to terms with Helen’s loss of her father and the training of a goshawk however it is about so much more than that.
The book spends a fair part of the narrative comparing Helen’s experiences with her goshawk with that of T H White’s experience described in his book The Goshawk. As someone who has read and enjoyed T H White’s work (though not the goshawk book) I was happy enough with that though I would understand those who felt that a distraction. In the end it is one of the most satisfying non-fiction books I have read and will stay with me for many years I’m sure. It has powerful bare naked words on overwhelming grief.
The skill of weaving together humanity and hawking and falconry and life and death is remarkable and makes for a truly fascinating read. Maybe not unputdownable but I willingly returned to this book over and over again. If I could read one book like this a year I would be very happy.