H is for hawk by Helen Macdonald, a non fiction classic?


I know I am a latecomer to this award winning book. It scooped the Costa and the Samuel Johnson prize in 2014 (I think). At the time of its publication I was going through the acute experience of bereavement myself and steered clear of anything that seemed to turn grief into a creative process. What actually drew me to read it now was simply this beautiful edition. I really am so shallow I judge a book by its cover.

It is a book about how Macdonald trains a goshawk in the midst of her grief for her father and a life crisis where she finds herself with no job and no home. Of course, training a goshawk is not like training a puppy, this is not a route to domestication rather an exploration of wildness, of nature and the place of life and death. Macdonald is an experienced falconer when she begins but training a goshawk is something else, something more brutal and even has a different name, austringer. Goshawks are like sparrowhawks  but “bulkier, bloodier, deadlier and scarier and much, much harder to see…looking for goshawks is like looking for grace.” She buys her goshawk, Mabel, in a strange exchange on a dock in Scotland where she sees Mabel as “a fallen angel” and brings her back to Cambridge where the birds wildness fills the house. 

As well as being a memoir of grief, it is also a biography of T.H.White, famous for “The Sword in the Stone” and the subsequent books about the court of King Arthur that inspired the musical Camelot. White was also an austringer. Like Macdonald, he buys a goshawk and decides to train it when he is lost, having left teaching and being deeply unsure of the person he is and his own desires. Unlike Macdonald, his attempt to train Gos is a found lacking and he graphically records his lack of progress in The Goshawk (1951), published sometime after the events as, in White’s own view, it was a record of failure and he had successfully trained hawks subsequently. It was the parts of the book where Macdonald reflected White’s biography, mingling this with her childhood recollections of The Goshawk that I found the most compelling. White comes to life as a character, and as a writer, in a way no one else in the narrative does, including Macdonald herself.

I enjoyed this book very much but it’s probably not one I would return to, in fact, if it wasn’t so pretty it would be heading to the book exchange. Macdonald writes about hawking and the landscape where she lives quite beautifully at times,

This sense of where the animals are is the coincidence of long experience with unconsciously noted clues. The incidence of sunlight on a stubblefield, and the pressure of wind on the same. The precise colour of the ground. I move towards the larks as if I could see them.

Though the landscape did feel alien to me, English, not British, Southern and agricultural. She presents a hawks eye view, wild and untamed. Essentially, however, I did not feel I knew her, her grief or her father. She is obviously sad and there is something about her relationship with Mabel that helps her process the sudden death of her father, who remains an elusive ghost throughout. Where the book triumphs is when she talks about T.H.White and it has left me wanting to reach down “The Once and Future King” and read again those parts where the young Arthur, Wart, enters the world in animal form and sees life through the eyes of nature. I also know I need to acquire my own copy of “The Goshawk” which I haven’t read for many years and I am now itching to revisit.

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