H is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald (2014, Grove Press)
A few months after her beloved father died, Helen Macdonald brought home a young goshawk. She let go of her graduate studies at Cambridge, and lived by herself, hand feeding the hawk raw meat. This is an odd thing to do, but not as strange for her as it would have been for most people: she had been interested in falconry since she was a small child, drawing birds obsessively and collecting the major literature on the subject by the age of eight.
Macdonald is shadowing an experience she read about as a child. Terence White is best known for The Once and Future King, a book a certain kind of bookish kid used to fall into in the days before Harry Potter. Long, dense, and magical, the book also bears a strain of melancholy; the more we get to know White, the more we see why. In his late twenties, he trained a hawk he called Gos, and wrote a small classic about it called The Goshawk. What's remarkable about this is that he made a complete disaster of training Gos, and even at eight, Macdonald could sense this, and find it disturbing.
She's actually well qualified to handle her new bird, having had other, smaller hawks and falcons, but a goshawk represents a special kind of challenge. They are somehow more ancient, more reptilian, more wild even than other birds men keep. “Half the time she seems as alien as a snake, a thing hammered of metal and scales and glass. But then I see ineffably birdlike things about her, familiar qualities that turn her into something lovable and close.” So lovable, in fact, that she calls her Mabel, “from amabilis, meaning lovable, or dear.”
Her days, and the book, are filled with close observation of Mabel; and it's as if she can see the world around them through Mabel's eyes. On one of their first trips outside together: “Joggers! Like bats leaving their roost, their numbers build incrementally. ...By the time Mabel and I are halfway home it feels as if we're in a nature documentary about the Serengeti. They are everywhere.” She describes the countryside in acute detail; she's almost always hawking by herself, so she has to trot across woods and fields, and plunge into thorny hedges. The goshawk has no conception of property lines, and Macdonald doesn't always know where she'll come out.
Since the major characters in H is for Hawk are two dead men and a wild animal, we spend a lot of time in the author's own head. There's an authorial sleight of hand, by which Macdonald describes herself losing her place in human society, almost to the point of losing language, in the most beautiful and precise language imaginable. Is she losing her mind, going feral, going mad with grief? She must have recovered enough to write the book in your hand, but you can't always see how that will occur. “Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”
But of course, people are not meant to be wild animals. Macdonald is in conversation with the dangerous example of White's attempted retreat from society; her criticism of him is seasoned with compassion. He had a frightened, lonely childhood, and was never free from sadistic urges that he would have been ashamed to put into practice. But Macdonald remembers in time that the bloodthirstiness of the goshawk is natural to the goshawk, and not to people. “Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.”
Macdonald has extraordinary control over this material. The descriptions of the natural world are beautiful, and I was surprised how much of it there was within fifty miles of Cambridge. She can cite sixteenth century falconers, and in the next breath see how her own bird gives them the lie. H is for Hawk is also a wonderful memorial to her father, who passed on a way of seeing the world that is to be treasured.
Any Good Books - June 2015