Unexpected things happen to your taste as you get older: personally, I’ve discovered an unadulterated love of jazz music, that gin is actually bloody lovely, and most surprising of all, I can’t get enough of books written about nature.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised about the latter though – my parents used to drag my brother and me on walks and bicycle rides around the country lanes a couple of miles from the house they still live in in the centre of an ever growing market town. Holidays always had at least one day when we walked – the day we were tricked into climbing Snowdon; the walk along the beach from Kessingland to Lowestoft which Dad swore wasn’t far but turned out to be double the distance it would’ve been by road; the search for a blue water lagoon in Wales, which was beautiful but resulted in us getting lost and having to cross a field full of cows and a bull. This reads like a digression but it’s a circular one; Helen Macdonald’s training of a goshawk comes about because it provides a link to her father, although it is a link that costs her dearly.
The memory was candescent, irresistible. The air reeked of pine resin and the pitchy vinegar of wood ants. I felt my small-girl fingers hooked through plastic chain-link and the weight of a pair of East German binoculars around my neck. I was bored. I was nine. Dad was standing next to me. We were looking for sparrowhawks.
Macdonald has this recollection three weeks prior to her mum telephoning to tell her that her father has died suddenly of heart failure. H is for Hawk is a memoir about her training a goshawk in the aftermath of her father’s death, but it is also a meditation on grief.
I can’t, even now, arrange it in the right order. The memories are like heavy blocks of glass. I can put them down in different places but they don’t make a story…It was about this time a kind of madness drifted in. Looking back, I think I was never truly mad. More mad north-north-west. I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always, but sometimes it was striking to me how similar they were.
The death of her father coincides with Macdonald’s tenure as a fellow at Cambridge coming to an end and with it the house she’s been living in. She’s also single and although she clearly has close friends around her, she begins to withdraw from them.
The plan to train the goshawk comes from a couple of interlinked ideas. The first is a fascination with them that began in childhood and led Macdonald to gain experience as a falconer. The other is T.H. White’s book The Goshawk, which she first encounters as an eight-year-old. She is incensed at ‘…his portrayal of falconry as a pitched battle between man and bird…’.
With this, H is for Hawk adds a third strand: an examination of The Goshawk and the life of T.H. White, a life that was incredibly lonely as he attempted to hide his homosexuality and turned to the countryside and writing in the hope of comfort.
The book meanders between the three strands but even as I write that I realise it makes it sound whimsical when it’s actually utterly compelling. Macdonald’s writing is precise, insightful and beautiful. Take the first time she meets her hawk:
She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers. She is wearing jesses, and the man holds them. For one awful, long moment she is hanging head-downward, wings open, like a turkey in a butcher’s shop, only her head is turned right-way-up and she is seeing more than she has ever seen in her whole short life. Her world was an aviary no larger than a living room. Then it was a box. But now it is this; and she can see everything: the point-source glitter on the waves, a diving cormorant a hundred yards out; pigment flakes under wax on the lines of parked cars; far hills and the heather on them and miles and miles of sky where the sun spreads on dust and water and illegible things moving in that are white scraps of gulls. Everything started and new-stamped on her entirely astonished brain.
I make no apology for quoting that at length. The picture created is incredible, moving from a view of the hawk to the hawk’s view. This move across perspectives is something Macdonald maintains throughout the book. There is a point about a third of the way in when she says:
The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.
If Macdonald is turning into a hawk, her writing allows the reader to turn into her. We are absorbed by the training of the hawk; we go through every step of the process with her.
If I haven’t managed to convey just how much I love this book, I’ve failed as a reviewer. I would like nothing more than to place a copy into the hands of every one of you. It is a wonderful memoir/examination of grief/critique of White. It deserves to become a classic.
As an interesting aside, the book also answered a hotly debated question. I read H is for Hawk on an ereader and was utterly absorbed. How I read it made absolutely no difference to my reading experience. However, I will be buying a physical copy to keep – have you seen that cover? It’s as beautiful as the writing contained within.
Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.