HELEN MACDONALD H is for Hawk. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir
There are many reasons to love this book – it is a quiet, yet tough-minded, humane triumph.
This multiple-prize-winning book (it won the Costa Book of the Year and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction) about a woman and her goshawk could be classed as memoir, or nature writing, or narrative non-fiction. It is all of those, and ravishingly beautiful as well.
The work’s complexity – and the elegant integration of all its layers – must originate in the author’s achievements across multiple disciplines. Helen Macdonald is a ‘writer, poet, illustrator, historian and affiliate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge’, says the book’s ‘About the Author’.
Two main narrative strands entwine. The first is Macdonald’s struggle with grief when her beloved father unexpectedly dies. ‘Ever since my father died I’d had these bouts of derealisaton, strange episodes where the world became unrecognisable,’ she says at one point; at another: ‘… the world around me was growing very strange indeed. The light that filled my house was deep and livid, half magnolia, half rainwater.’ And at yet another: ‘I was in ruins.’
The second strand comes into being when grief brings memories to the surface, along with ‘states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world’. Macdonald’s distress retrieves her childhood obsession with falconry. At a young age she had read everything she could on the sport, going far back into its history and absorbing its beautiful language:
In my old books every part of a hawk was named: wings were sails, claws pounces, tail a train … Half-trained hawks fly on a long line called a creance. Hawks don’t wipe their beaks, they feak. When they defecate, they mute. When they shake themselves they rouse … They were magic words, arcane and lost.
A new impulse to buy a bird – and a notoriously difficult goshawk at that – seems part of her craziness. Especially as her university job is temporary: ‘… no job and no more money coming in. And no house either.’
In her disordered state, she had already made things worse for herself by a relationship, ‘predictably and devastatingly, with a man who ran a mile when he worked out how broken I was’. The reader glimpses Macdonald’s sardonic self-awareness: ‘… though I know not only why he ran but know that in principle he could have been anyone, I still have a red dress that I will never wear again. That’s how it goes.’
Crazy or not, that idea of the goshawk won’t leave her alone. She remembers a close encounter at a bird-of-prey centre where she had worked. A wounded goshawk is removed from a box:
A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk. Old because her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sunbleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles.
After going to Scotland to collect her own young goshawk from the breeder, Macdonald names the bird Mabel, retreats into solitude, and begins building familiarity and trust. This is a slow process, beset by doubts and frustrations: ‘Hawks aren’t social animals like dogs or horses; they understand neither coercion nor punishment.’
Now a third strand is cunningly woven into the narrative when Macdonald returns to a book read when she was young. The Goshawk, a 1951 non-fiction work, was written by TH White, more famous for his children’s book The Sword in the Stone. Macdonald, who has accessed White’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, unfolds the story of White’s unsuccessful attempt to train his bird Gos, and also reveals White’s own tragic personal history.
Macdonald braids history with science, anthropology, psychology, autobiography and biography. She also, most strikingly, braids life with death. Her father’s death is ever present, but there are also those deaths caused by the bird acting according to its nature and its training: ‘Everything about the hawk is tuned and turned to hunt and kill.’ Mabel kills pheasants, rabbits, pigeons. And Macdonald delivers the coup de grâce each time, ending the suffering of an animal that would otherwise die slowly as Mabel’s beak pulls off strips of flesh.
The proximity to death makes a profound impact. Macdonald – whose friends tease her when she avoids treading on spiders – thinks about bloodthirstiness: ‘It was only when I was aligned with the hawk’s eye that it made sense, but then it made more sense than anything else in the world.’
Macdonald emphasises her close proximity to the goshawk with sensory images: ‘She breathes hot hawk breath in my face. It smells of pepper and musk and burned stone.’ Readers become familiar with sounds of the bird’s different calls, with the rustle of feathers as she shakes herself, even the ‘wet click, click, click of her blinking’. Then there are the tactile sensations of the hawk on Macdonald’s glove-protected wrist – the weight, the talons clutching involuntarily at any sound resembling the squeal of a rabbit.
The visual descriptions are especially vivid, which is appropriate since a hawk’s vision is so superior to that of humans:
This hawk can see colours I cannot, right into the ultraviolet spectrum. She can see polarised light, too, watch thermals of warm air rise, roil, and spill into clouds, and trace, too, the magnetic lines of force that stretch across the earth … she can see with fierce clarity things I can’t possibly resolve from the generalised blur. The claws on the toes of the house martins overhead. The veins on the wings of the white butterfly hunting its wavering course over the mustards at the end of the garden.
Macdonald doesn’t shy away from wonderfully unusual vocabulary, sprinkling the text with antique and specialised words. She writes of ‘the argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fine clay’ or raised feathers ‘like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine’. Despite her obvious delight in language and literature, however, she does not overindulge. And these echoes of the past serve a purpose by linking her text to those of previous times, just as her goshawk connects Macdonald with centuries past.
Eventually Mabel is trained; eventually Macdonald moves past her devastation. There are setbacks in both processes that are necessary to the story, and these occasionally seem like wallowing. However, these jarring notes are rare in book that is on the whole bracing and rigorous. Mabel, in spite of her endearing name, is not anthropomorphised, and the book does not slide into a sentimental story of Nature’s redeeming power. In fact, Macdonald’s experiences lead her to critique that mindset:
‘Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions’, wrote [pioneering conservationist] John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’
Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. 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.
There are many reasons to love this book but, for me, this tough-minded affirmation of our social nature is a quiet humane triumph.
Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk Jonathan Cape 2014 HB 320pp $34.99
Jeannette Delamoir is an ex-Queenslander and former academic. She loves writing, reading and living in Sydney.
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