A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This book has knocked me sideways. I cannot remember the last time I read a book that was so deeply felt, and deeply thought, nor one I read with so many reverses of emotion – sympathy, empathy, delight, wonder, revulsion, rejection. But I wouldn’t have missed reading it for the world, and I feel sure I shall return to it again and again. To summarise, I think I fell in love with the Hawk, but ran through a chaotic variety of feelings towards the Hawker. Which is possibly the intention, I don’t know.
This is a deeply personal memoir, and it has three strands, all closely interwoven: it is an account of Helen Macdonald’s (hereafter Helen) cycle of grief after the sudden death of her father; of her relationship with the goshawk she brought into her life as she attempted to survive her grief; and a biographical study of that other renowned chronicler of the goshawk, T H White. At the start of the book, Helen is in her thirties, a Cambridge academic (just about), coming to the end of a fellowship and wondering where to go next, when the sudden death of her father, the photo-journalist Alistair Macdonald, sends her spiralling into grief and depression. She abandons all attempts to find another post, and goes in search of a goshawk.
There is something so mysterious about falconry and hawking – it is like a parallel world, with its culture and lore and language and social structure. It brings the middle ages to the present day. I am not sure quite how much I like myself for my fascination with it. A human being intervenes in the life of a wild creature and alters its life. So far, so like domesticating creatures since the beginning of humankind. This feels more provisional somehow – falconers live with the knowledge that their bird may be loosed one day and disappear from their life. Meanwhile it takes extraordinary skill and patience to build that bond as strong as possible. There is something heroic, and stoic, about it. So goes my wishful thinking, as I read on in wonder.
So, on to H is for Hawk. Ever since childhood, Helen had been obsessed with raptors. She read White’s The Goshawk at a precocious eight years old, and having trained her first bird in her early teens, she went on to become a skilled falconer. However, since at the age of twelve she first saw them fly, she never forgot the goshawk.
One of the things I have learnt from this book is never to confuse a falcon with a hawk. There is even a different word for a trainer of goshawks and sparrowhawks – not a falconer, but an austringer, and in the ancient ranking of the sport they are decidedly in the lower echelons. The goshawk has a particularly challenging reputation – ‘spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets. […] [falcons] were as different from hawks as dogs are from cats.’ So thought Helen, as she learnt to fly falcons. Above all, goshawks are independent and moody.
I think the point at which this book grabbed and held me was as early as page 20, when she describes seeing hunting in the field for the first time with goshawks, and even at 12 she notices two things: their murderous effectiveness; and their self sufficiency. As the afternoon wore on, the party was depleted. Several hawkers could be seen standing under trees, their hawks up in the branches having decided to take no further part in the proceedings. So – goshawks have a habit of sulking in trees. It is well-known.
These men didn’t seem annoyed; fatalistic merely. […] The disposition of their hawks was peculiar. But it wasn’t unsociable. It was something much stranger. It seemed the hawks couldn’t see us at all, that they’d slipped out of our world entirely and moved into another, wilder world from which humans had been utterly erased. These men knew they had vanished. Nothing could be done except wait. So we left them behind: three solitary figures staring up into trees in the winter dusk, mist thickening in the fields around them, each trusting that the world would later right itself and their hawk would return.
Whose world is righted when the hawk comes back? This question haunted me throughout the book, and gave me an inkling of why Helen feels such an affinity to this particular hawk. There is something about this self-possession and self-determination of the hawk in its relationship to the hawker.
Helen drives to Scotland and instantly bonds with one of two goshawks available to buy (not the one intended for her). She brings her home and starts on the all-absorbing task of training her (the term in falconry is ‘manning’ – discuss). She spends more and more time with Mabel, training and flying and sharing her life, retreating from the rest of the world while she does so. Interwoven with her developing relationship with Mabel is her account of her overwhelming grief at the loss of her father. Is she dealing with it or deferring it? Either way, bringing someone as exceptional as Mabel into her life gives everything an edge of danger that certainly makes her feel alive. As she learns to co-exist with Mabel, to keep her alive and in peak condition, Helen becomes more hawk-like and less human. At the end of a season with Mabel, a cycle of mourning, and some medical help, she begins to readjust the distance between herself and her hawk, and herself and the rest of the world.
At right angles to this, as it were, is a vivid, iconoclastic critical biography of T H White, her predecessor as a literary hawker, whose account of his battle of wills with his hawk Gos disturbs her deeply by its cruelty and his ill-advised methods. She places White’s book in a tradition of nature-writing where the author is retreating from his own self into a different world where living with a wild creature is a refuge from his ill-adjusted life among humans. I have never read The Goshawk; seven years ago, then-Bookfox Trilby Kent reviewed the book on Vulpes Libris. Reading it after H is for Hawk would I think cast a very different light on it, as Helen Macdonald blows his methods and his relationship with Gos out of the water.
What I loved most about the book was the personality of Mabel – and my deep gratitude to Helen Macdonald for describing the overwhelming love for her that made her completely attuned to her every move, habit, mood and need. The descriptions of Mabel and her behaviour made her naturally the most alluring character in the book. What changed me about the book was that I discovered a tolerance I have scarcely before admitted to myself of blood and death – Mabel’s instincts are murderous, and her life is sustained by other dead creatures. I ought to hate this, but in fact I found her exploits shamefully exciting. The book is replete with feathers, fur, blood and gory hawk snacks.
What made me much less happy, and this is a deeply personal view that I am not very proud of, is that I wanted to shun the idea that this utterly gorgeous nature writing was so closely bound up with the author’s own memoir of grief and loss. There is nothing mundane about losing the person you love most of all, but at every turn I felt challenged to test my negative reaction to Helen’s self-prescription of training a goshawk as a retreat from an overwhelming sense of bereavement. Can I ever read a classic of nature writing again without feeling I have be aware of what is hidden beneath? What is the writer running from? How badly do I need to know? This book completely externalises the answer, is completely honest about it, and is all the better and more moving for it – but the author aligns herself with T H White, and Gavin Maxwell, and J A Baker’s classic study The Peregrine, and name-checks Maxwell Knight, well-known naturalist of my childhood, all as writers whose reversion to the natural world had a sub-text. I feel as though my earlier, innocent reading of classics of natural history may have been taken from me. This book blows the gaff on a whole genre, I fear.
As I indicated at the beginning of this piece, though – I found this book utterly involving, moving, exciting. Helen Macdonald is a poet, and her prose is imbued with poetic sensibility, and a particular sense of being airborne. She shares with her father a passion for all things aerial, and finds imagery in common between hawks and aircraft, and the falconer-knights with the pilots who fly them. So much beauty and terror. But most of all, I love the descriptions of Mabel, suffused by the deepest affection and respect for her unique personality. Just look at that cover illustration – such curbed power and keen intelligence, and threat too. Also, the passages in which Mabel interacts with the landscape as she hunts and kills are lyrical and passionate nature writing at its very best. It is the most powerful prose I have read for a very long time, and it will stay with me. The book is on the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson prize, and I shall be rooting for it to win.
Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk. London, Jonathan Cape, 2014. 300pp
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