Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
I was initially attracted to this book by it’s absolutely stunning cover (I have a soft spot for William Nicholson so enjoyed the homage) which in turn made me open it with a little bit of caution – could it be as good as the cover made me want it to be? It was, it made me look things up, think, cry (somehow always in public places), occasionally laugh, buy a copy of T H White’s The Once And Future King, and follow Helen Macdonald on twitter. In short I loved this book. It’s hard to pin down exactly what sort of a book it is – I’ve seen it described as journalism, nature writing, a bird book, a misery memoir (which annoyed me), it’s part biography, part autobiography, has elements of a training manual, touches on philosophy and is in every way more than the sum of its parts, but very briefly it’s an account of the authors life as she comes to terms with the death of her father.
When he dies unexpectedly from a heart attack whilst out on a job (he was a photo journalist) Helen is in her mid to late thirties, has no partner, no children, no 9-5 job (I believe she was a research fellow at Cambridge at the time) and no permanent home of her own. There’s no distraction from grief, but plenty of opportunity for crisis. Helen, who has already had a career as a falconer, finds herself dreaming about goshawks and decides that what she needs to do is train one, so that’s what she does. She acquires a young female, calls her Mabel – meaning loveable – and starts to absorb herself into the hawk’s life. Meanwhile, she also develops something of an obsession, if that isn’t too strong a word, with T. H. White and his account of life with a goshawk (The Goshawk). H is for Hawk has a sort of potted biography of White running through it as well as feeling like a conversation with him at times.
Training Mabel is at first a distraction from Macdonald’s grief, and later its progress an indication to her that she’s not coping well with it (eventually she’s diagnosed with depression). To the lay person it’s a fascinating insight into an ancient art complete with its own arcane language. There are enough defrosting day old chicks and episodes of bloodshed, often Helen’s own, to rub some of the glamour from the idea of falconry, but not enough to truly rob it of its romance. Mabel herself is a magnetic presence throughout the book: aloof from the concerns of humans she is still the element that pulls everything together, and there’s such a lot to draw together, so many ideas, images, bits of history and myth; reading a book like this is an adventure.
What really drew me in though was Macdonald’s reaction to losing her father. Initially it was difficult to reconcile how openly she could talk about some episodes and fears until a reference to Northern Rock made it clear that there has been sufficient time to turn experience into anecdote. She is still careful about what information she shares though, family privacy is protected (it’s easy enough to find out who her father was but I don’t think she gives his name); the result from my point of view was recognisable and even reassuring but also drew a deeply personal response.
Finally, and this is by no means a foregone conclusion in a book with an animal at its heart, there is a hopeful, even happy, ending (Gavin Maxwell never gives you that). The hawk is successfully trained, and the author, now embarked as we know on a successful new career as a best-selling writer, is clearly regaining her equilibrium. It’s a deliberate decision to make it so, mostly, I assume, as a response to all of those animal books Macdonald read as a child where the creature dies and also because personal crises do resolve themselves.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader
Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk, (Jonathan Cape, London, 2014) ISBN 10 0224097008, 320p, Hardback
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