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Helen Macdonald, H is for hawk (Review)

March 2, 2016

Helen Macdonald, H is for hawkMy 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.

T. H. White lecturing on his Arthurian fiction (Courtesy John J. Burns Library, Boston College, via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0).

TH White (Courtesy John J. Burns Library, Boston College, via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0).

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.

Helen Macdonald
H is for hawk
London: Vintage Books, 2014
300 pp.
ISBN: 9780099575450

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2016 12:05 am

    What a great review. This sounds amazing!

    • ian darling permalink
      March 3, 2016 12:52 am

      A very fine review and one that lifts this book from my toppling TBR pile to a book I really must read. A quest story sounds like what the book is about.

      • March 3, 2016 7:44 am

        Thanks Ian … I’d love to know what you think, particularly with your coming from Great Britain.

    • March 3, 2016 7:41 am

      Thanks Cathy … It’s such an intriguing book, but it’s probably not in your 746 is it 😀

  2. March 3, 2016 12:52 am

    I loved this book too! I hadn’t thought about it making a good book club choice, but your review has made me realise just how many different themes are running through this book. The quote at the end is especially poignant when written in isolation – I think I’m reaching the age of holes now!

    • March 3, 2016 7:42 am

      Thanks Jackie … I’ll go check out your review. And oh dear the losses do compound as we get older don’t they?

  3. March 3, 2016 2:24 am

    Interesting and detailed review, as usual. Having recently read this, myself, just thought I’d share the review I left on Goodreads, which has a little different focus from yours (and is much, much shorter):

    This would have rated a 5, if it hadn’t been for the celebration of a sport I find sad, at best, and downright abusive towards raptors, at worst, despite MacDonald’s attempt to thumb her nose at elite falconers and inept hawkers. It was a pleasant surprise to find that about half of the book is about T.H. White and his passion for capturing a full sense of what he believed to be medieval life. Kudos to MacDonald for unmasking some of the myths regarding the sport of hawking/falconry. Unfortunately, her wallowing in grief is a bit of a setback to my goal of living positively in 2016, but I suppose there is something to be said for the few lines of positivity at the end of the book, as she pulls herself out of the doldrums and back into a healthier way of thinking.

    • March 3, 2016 7:54 am

      Ah thanks Diane, that’s a great, succinct review! Her discussion of class and falconry was interesting wasn’t it, and I do agree about the sport. Most sports involving animals are a worry aren’t they … And with your photography interest her focus on it would be right in your face.

  4. March 3, 2016 3:32 am

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this book! I love your review, and it’s inspired me to reread the book myself. I love the quote you finish on; I think MacDonald’s writing is wonderful.

    • March 3, 2016 7:56 am

      Thanks Gemma … Her writing is so evocative, I agree. It is a book you could read again. There’s so much in it.

  5. March 3, 2016 5:35 am

    I’m hoping that this will be a non-fiction treat for later in the year. The quotations you give sound wonderful and promise great things!

  6. March 3, 2016 7:21 am

    This was lovely. That last quote is bittersweet. I plan to read the book sometime, just don’t know when. It’s still quite popular at the library so maybe after the hubbub dies down.

    • March 3, 2016 8:01 am

      Thanks Stefanie. It is fascinating how much it seems to have captured people’s interest. It must be partly her evocative writing but partly too a sport most of us know little of.

  7. March 3, 2016 8:01 am

    I have read many positive reviews of this but passed on if for the hunting aspects. Someone who’d read the book affirmed my decision.

    • March 3, 2016 10:29 am

      Yep, Guy, I thought of you early in the book when I wrote “cruel” in the margins when the baby hawk was being transported in a box in the back of a car. This will not be Guy’s book I decided.

  8. March 3, 2016 8:15 am

    I thought it was an excellent read and such a unique way of dealing with a deep grief, a testament to how close they must have been, I don’t think the book needs to dwell on the grief of others (in reference to your bookclub member’s comment) – it is a private matter, being a memoir we understand it is about as aspect of a life, we could say it is about depression (something people have a choice in switching on or off) and one woman’s path to dealing with it. I say bravo to Helen MacDonald for sharing her extraordinary journey.

    Fabulous review, thank you!

    • March 3, 2016 10:39 am

      Thanks Claire. Yes, we did talk about the idea that depression was part of it, and we also talked about its being a journey. We had a good discussion, but of course, I’m with you. I found it such a fascinating book on several levels.

  9. March 3, 2016 1:58 pm

    Thanks, WG. A really interesting review and, from my reading of the reviews, isn’t at all repetitive; I especially enjoyed the perspective you bring to it. The book reminded me that grief itself is a wild creature and can’t be predicted or defined. We all grieve the way we do — really, the way we have to, and like Claire, I say bravo to Helen. And the writing — stunning, witty, insightful.

    • March 3, 2016 2:52 pm

      Why thanks Robyn. I completely comprehend your notion of grief itself as a wild creature. Good one.

  10. March 3, 2016 8:23 pm

    I’m also surprised by the book group’s focus on, it seems, critiquing the validity of Macdonald’s grief and/or feeling that she should’ve been focused on her mother. Quite apart from the fact that that seems, well, plain cruel and unfeeling and ridiculous to me (can’t we accept that grief manifests in different ways for different people? Is there some sort of underlying gendered assumptions here that a daughter should be able to brush off a father’s death?), Macdonald didn’t write a book about her family’s way of coping with the loss, she wrote a book about how she coped with it herself in an absolutely unique and, I feel, beautiful way. Perhaps her mother didn’t want to have her emotions published for the world; perhaps Helen decided early on not to put voices to her mother’s grief.

    I don’t know. It seems like niggling for the sake of niggling at something, to me!

    I really enjoyed it, and found the writing powerful and honest, and the whole thing plain fascinating.

    • March 3, 2016 8:55 pm

      Yes, I did too Hannah. All that exactly, powerful, honest and plain fascinating.

      I don’t think the reaction was gendered – indeed some talked about grief over their own father.

  11. March 3, 2016 9:10 pm

    I loved this book and have been recommending it ever since I was lucky enough to get an ARC. I’ve imposed it on as many friends as I can as well.
    Some of my favourite books have been memoirs of a challenging relationship with an animal – Jane Shilling’s Fox in the Cupboard, Gavin Maxwell’s otter oeuvre. H is for Hawk belongs alongside them.
    If that description ‘relationship with an animal’ sounds fluffy or cosy, think again. These animals aren’t pets. They are forces to be negotiated with, embodiments of the wild that pitch you into a different way of life and living. I could go on – and have, indeed, on Goodreads. But I wanted to say thank you for this review. You’ve brought back – very pleasurably – the power of this particular relationship.

    • March 3, 2016 9:18 pm

      Thanks Roz. I had gathered over the last year that this book had a lot of enthusiasts, which is why I wanted to read it. I’m so glad to hear from some of you. I haven’t heard of Shilling or Maxwell.

  12. Glenda permalink
    March 4, 2016 6:35 am

    I too read this with my reading group just last month (next week is Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the crowd which I think you have also reviewed).
    Our discussion touched on many of the points you raise and there were a few who also thought she was a little self-indulgent. We spent some time talking about depression as one of our members is a counselor. Most enjoyed the TH White part and all agreed she was an excellent writer. I was thinking about rereading The sword in the stone but I already have too many books piling up. They also appreciated the amount of research she had done and decided that this would have been second-nature to her as an academic.
    I was particularly interested to learn that she had spent several years working at the Avian Research Center in Abu Dhabi and that she may have been there when I was teaching in Abu Dhabi.

    • March 4, 2016 7:47 am

      Sounds like a good discussion too, Glenda. Yes, we talked a little about depression too, though probably would have more, I’m sure, if our psychologist had been there. Her insights can be very interesting. And the Abu Dhabi experience, we only touched on that.

      Yes, I’ve reviewed Faces in the crowd. I’d love to hear what your group thought, if you could be bothered. We are doing Elizabeth Harrower next.

    • March 4, 2016 7:48 am

      Oops, and I meant to say that I thought briefly about reading The sword in the stone too, but the piles, as you say, call.

  13. March 4, 2016 4:52 pm

    My book club also read H is for Hawk over the Christmas holidays. We had good discussions on many aspects of the book. We were surprised about T H White, and liked his influence in Helen’s story. We all felt sad for the sport and Helen. We recognised that grief effects people in many ways, but some felt she was too self indulgent. Again, everyone agreed the writing was wonderful. I think it was 4 thumbs and four thumbs up for the read.

    • March 4, 2016 5:14 pm

      Thanks Meg … sounds like my reading group isn’t the only one where some weren’t fully on board with Helen. It’s certainly a book that’s good for discussion isn’t it – with the grief memoir, the falconry and TH White to think about.

  14. March 4, 2016 4:54 pm

    Sorry, “four thumbs up, and four thumbs down for the read”.

  15. March 4, 2016 10:28 pm

    If womeone were to ask me “What do you want to read about?” I’m pretty sure I would not say “I’d like to read about how an academic Englishwoman lived out her grief through raising and training a goshawk.” And yet H is for Hawk is remarkable. A compelling, lyrical, insightful read. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We read in order to be taken to places we didn’t even realise we wanted to go. To learn about things that it hadn’t occurred to us to learn about.

    • March 4, 2016 10:46 pm

      That’s exactly it Michelle, we do I think. Who’d have thought, as you say, that we’d be reading a book about falconry!

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