Books – H is for Hawk

Hawk Helen MacDonald

Helen Macdonald has opened her soul, and unlike most of us, is able to articulate its pain and its healing with a beautiful and haunting power.

H is for Hawk is a memoir that weaves her grief over the loss of her father with her training of a goshawk, but it also follows the life of the author T.H.White, including his attempts to train a goshawk, his account of which became a book in its own right.

But the weaving of this memoir goes deeper than that, as her reflections expand out to contemplation of the nature of belonging and identity.  These thoughts are coextensive with her interpretation of The Goshawk and White’s struggles with the titular hawk as symbolic of his inner turmoil; a psychoanalysis of White and the forces of his parents and his homosexuality on the man he became, and the actions in which those formative experiences and predilections would later, destructively, manifest.

It is a moving book, a wrestling with grief and depression, a desire for annihilation of the self in the ‘everpresent’ of nature, the goshawk’s pure and timeless purpose.  Macdonald flees people and all the trappings of her life, sheds them, and gives us a mesmerising account of the journey there and back.

The book is a vigorous argument for the importance of good prose.  Great prose has always thrilled me, and H is for Hawk is overstuffed with it:

‘The light that filled my house was deep and livid, half magnolia, half rainwater.  Things sat in it, dark and very still…There were imperceptible pressures…Something else was there, something standing next to me that I couldn’t touch or see, a thing a fraction of a millimetre from my skin, something vastly wrong.’

This is early on, the depression taking hold.  There are beautiful juxtapositions here – a light that is wet, a light within which sit dark things, something barely a millimetre away that is also vast.  These juxtapositions make us giddy, they define a wrongness in the house around her that is a symptom of the depression she is slipping into, when, as I can attest, the world in its entirety seems wrong, not just distant.  It is the choice of description here, the avoidance of cliché, that works to draw the parallel out of my own feelings.  A more generic description would fail to engage.  This description, my mind’s consumption and decoding of it, is precisely the activity required to create the resonance between her feelings and feelings I remember having.  But this applies to the whole book.  My engagement and emotional involvement stem in significant part from her ability to describe some quite esoteric memories of childhood such that they triggered memories I’d forgotten about but also shared.

More than once in the last week or so I’ve walked into the office and for fully fifteen minutes tried to disentangle myself from her story in order to start my day.

Here’s a snip regarding the man she’s buying the goshawk from retrieving the box with it inside from his car:

‘A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook…Another hinge untied.  Concentration.  Infinite caution.  Daylight irrigating the box.  Scratching talons, another thump.  And another.  Thump.  The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust.  The last few seconds before a battle…and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury…My heart jumps sideways.  She is a conjuring trick.  A reptile.  A fallen angel.’

Then there are gorgeous turns of phrase, almost beyond count, such as:

‘She breathes hot hawk-breath in my face.  It smells of pepper and musk and burned stone.’

Much of the book then, revolves around her growing relationship with the goshawk.  While her memoir fills out around the day to day of her life as she vanishes from society to encompass her thoughts on White and her own mental stability, she writes captivatingly about the hawk, its predilection for play, its states of mind and its savage power.  On top of everything else, there’s an education about training hawks in here, not to mention sociocultural musings on the history of falconers and austringers (the name for goshawk trainers particularly).  There are many threads to this weave of memoir yet the result is vivid and readable.

Later on Macdonald wonders about the nature of ‘Old England’, and how it is really only a construct, a sop, something simple we can put upon the objective past to make us content about it and thus pine for it:

‘Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings.  It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard…We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not.  Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead.  We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves.  We take solace in pictures, and wipe the hills of history.’

Her musings on England are both her own and her wondering to what extent White’s view on such things was.  Much of what she writes of from her own life she explores with regard to his.  They are musings informed by her wandering in the countryside and her coming to know one part of it intimately, that part she hunts with Mabel, her hawk.  It is the classic ‘landscape as collective memory’ that is being explored in this book along with so much else of her heart.  The journey of Mabel’s training, the triumphs and failures, she paints as stemming from but also revealing to her what it is that’s wrong with her, what her own state of mind is.  Training Mabel seems to be a tackling and overcoming of her perceived flaws – neediness, being overprotecting, nihilism.  These are all reflected somehow purely and transparently in the hiccups she has with training the hawk.  Ultimately, Mabel delivers the means of a resolution.

Macdonald’s honesty, her passions and her brutally scrutinised flaws are clearly exposed in this book.  It’s a self-awareness and a depth of feeling that’s so much more profound than so much else I’ve read.  It doesn’t surprise me she can suffer so much.  Knowing this book is ‘true’ is what made it so moving, that and her exquisite ability to express this truth.   I followed her story and its helical mirror in T.H. White’s story with gratitude and admiration.