Helen Macdonald, H is for hawk (Review)
My reading really has been rather odd lately. I’ve read a memoir about horse-racing (Gerald Murnane’s Something for the pain), a novel about hedge-funds and investment banking (Kate Jenning’s Moral hazard), and now a grief memoir focused on falconry (Helen Macdonald’s H is for hawk). None of these are topics I would naturally pick up, but in each case I’ve enjoyed being presented these very different worlds. H is for hawk, this post’s subject, is additionally interesting because it combines three different forms of writing – memoir, biography and nature writing.
As I don’t read reviews before I read books, I really didn’t know what I was getting in for, except that I understood it was about a woman managing her grief through raising a hawk. It is about this, but it is about so much more too, including being a sort of mini-biography of novelist TH White. You probably know White through his most famous works, The once and future king and The sword in the stone, but you may not know that he also wrote a book called Goshawk about the training of his goshawk called Gos. Imaginative name that! Macdonald was far more creative. She named hers Mabel! (She does explain this surprising tame-sounding name).
Many people have written about falconry over the years so why does Macdonald light on TH White? Well, it’s complicated. She had read Goshawk when she was a young girl, and hadn’t much liked it. However, she read it again and
saw more in it than bad falconry … White made it a metaphysical battle. Like Moby-Dick or The old man and the sea, The goshawk was a literary encounter between animal and man that reached back to Puritan traditions of spiritual contest …
White, you see, wrote it after he’d left his teaching post in 1936 to live in a workman’s cottage. He was fleeing a world in which he, a homosexual, didn’t fit, a world in which he had to live “in perpetual disguise”. Macdonald suddenly recognises a fellow-feeling, writing that
I felt, for the first time, that my urge to train a hawk was for reasons that weren’t entirely my own. Partly they were his.
Because MacDonald was training her hawk to escape her grief following the sudden death of her beloved father. She was, she writes, “running” like White. Both, we gradually learn, experience a sort of madness that they need to resolve and recover from.
And so the book progresses in fits and starts, but chronologically so, as Macdonald parallels the awful and sad story of White and Gos with hers and Mabel’s. It makes fascinating reading.
Now, this book has been out for well over a year. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction (which our very own Anna Funder won for Stasiland) among other awards and shortlistings. It’s been comprehensively reviewed, I believe, so I fear reiterating what others have said before. Consequently, I’m just going to give a broad brush overview of my response to it (and follow up with a Delicious Descriptions post of some of its truly gorgeous nature writing).
To start with, I enjoyed it immensely. It fits into what we call literary or creative non-fiction. That is, it uses some novelistic techniques such as dialogue, poetic imagery and a narrative arc, but it is very definitely non-fiction. It contains a lot of fact about her life, and much research about falconry and TH White. And there are several pages of end-notes identifying sources of quotes, though these notes are not flagged in the text.
I was fascinated by her stories of falconry – her own and from the past – and I am always interested in the lives of writers. Macdonald is an historian by profession, and weaves history through the telling of her own experiences. Although as a child she had agreed with the general censure of White’s training of Gos, as an adult she is more sympathetic, empathising with White’s loneliness and understanding his lack of knowledge and experience. I must say that while I was intellectually interested in the falconry, I would be among those of her friends who find the idea “morally suspect”. It seems a cruel activity to me – and, in fact, cruelty is one of the many threads running through the book. White, who had been physically and emotionally abused as a child, was, apparently, a “sadomasochist”, though Macdonald argues that he consciously worked to keep that part of himself at bay.
This brings me to another aspect of the book I enjoyed – the way she weaves multiple ideas or themes through it. Freedom is one. Macdonald seeks it through her hawk:
The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.
Hawks seek it too, sometimes. Macdonald describes “bating”, in which a bird tries to fly from a fist or perch while still attached, as a “wild bid for freedom”. And White definitely seeks freedom. Macdonald frequently refers to his desire for it. She quotes his own writing:
A longing came to my mind, then, that I should be able to do this also. The word ‘feral’ had a kind of magical potency which allied itself with two other words, ‘ferocious’ and ‘free’ … To revert to a feral state I took a farm-labourer’s cottage …
Feral. This word conjures another theme, that of wildness. Both White and Macdonald revert to wildness in their own way – by training wild birds, and by withdrawing from society. Macdonald describes how she becomes, essentially, one with her hawk. She starts to think and see like a hawk, and is taken, she writes, “to the very edge of being human”. Eventually though, sense returns. She comes to understand that falconry is “a balancing act between wild and tame” – and not just for the hawk! She rejects American naturalist John Muir’s “earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal”, arguing instead that “the wild is not a panacea for the human soul.” All this makes me think that there’s a fourth form of writing that this book could fit into – the quest story – because it is, fundamentally, a quest for sanity and peace, for both Macdonald and White.
There are other ideas and themes, but I fear that my broad brush is starting to become a fine pen. I will write a little about nature and the environment in my Delicious Descriptions post, so will end my main analysis here.
I read this with my reading group. Some found Macdonald a little too self-obsessed for their liking. Why did the death of her father create such a schism in her soul? Why was she not able to see that her mother’s need, as the bereaved spouse, was surely greater? I wondered a little about this too, though it didn’t affect my appreciation of the book. The answer is, I suppose, that we are all different. For whatever reason – timing, perhaps, the quality of the father-daughter relationship, definitely – Macdonald’s father’s death knocked her for a six. Having accepted that as a given, I found H is for hawk a thoughtful, complex book that engaged me from the start.
This is a long post, I know, but I want to share one more thing. It occurs two-thirds of the way through the book, and, to me at least, shares one of life’s important lessons:
There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.
H is for hawk
London: Vintage Books, 2014