H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, Jonathan Cape, RRP£14.99, 320 pages
They say that bad books are the easiest to write about, which makes this review very difficult indeed – because H is for Hawk is a dazzling piece of work: deeply affecting, utterly fascinating and blazing with love and intelligence.
Helen Macdonald is a Cambridge historian, illustrator and naturalist. Obsessed by birds of prey since she was a child, she trained as a falconer and has worked on raptor research and conservation projects in Europe and Asia, lectured on falcons and falconry, and bred hunting falcons for Arab royalty. But when her father, the acclaimed press photographer Alisdair Macdonald, dies suddenly, she finds herself cast into that phantasmagorical otherworld of shock and grief that is perilously close to madness. In the midst of it, lost and desperate, she obeys an arcane impulse: to acquire and train that most wild and difficult of British raptors – the goshawk.
In doing so, she is following in the footsteps of TH White, author of the Arthurian tetralogy The Once And Future King (1958), whose lesser-known book The Goshawk (1951) records his own, desperately sad (and sadly misguided) battle to bend a hawk to his will. The cleverly interwoven stories – White’s struggle both with his goshawk and his own homosexuality, and the author’s journey through grief with her young hawk at her side – speak to one another subtly and unexpectedly. “White is part of my story,” she writes. “I have to write about him here because he was there. When I trained my hawk I was having a quiet conversation of sorts, with the deeds and works of a long-dead man … whose life disturbed me.” Along the way – and almost by stealth – we learn a great deal about birds of prey, their meaning, behaviour and history, and are given a glimpse of the English landscape that’s both beautiful, illumined with insight, and entirely defamiliarised.
Macdonald buys the bird on a Scottish quayside for £800 in cash and drives it back to Cambridge where, still reeling from grief, she closes the curtains and tells her friends to keep away. For the next few days it is just the two of them. “To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand its moods,” she writes. “Then you gain the ability to predict what it will do next. This is the sixth sense of the practised animal trainer … You seem to feel what it feels.”
Her growing understanding of, and love for, the bird she decides to call Mabel illuminate the book – and for those of us whose only experience of raptors is from a distance, at falconry displays, the affection with which she describes Mabel’s character is a revelation: she “narrows her eyes with pleasure”, “squeaks happily through her nose”, turns her head upside-down quizzically and plays catch with balls of scrunched-up paper. At the same time, she is never anything else but a bird; one who, once she has been tamed (or “manned”), is taken by Macdonald to hunt the Cambridgeshire woods and fields, where she kills, and kills, and kills.
Reeling from grief, she closes the curtains and tells her friends to keep away
Of course, mortality haunts the book. The passages in which Macdonald deals most directly with the death of her father are imbued with the authenticity of loss: the way grief can make you feel dangerous, like “dully burning metal” (“I was convinced … that if you had put me on a bed or a chair I would have burned right through”); the way her memories of the hospital and the raw days that came after have come to seem disjointed, “like heavy blocks of glass”. As well as memoir, as well as nature writing, this book is a survivor’s testimony – and she brings to her own story, and to TH White’s deep fears and contradictions, tenderness, humour and arresting psychological insight.
You can write from the head or from the heart, from the intellect or the emotions. The best kind of writing – and it is rare – does both those things at once. It’s rare because it can be so very painful to produce, the discipline required to sit with raw feelings and turn them into ordered words not unlike the courage it would take to hold your hand on a hot radiator until it burns, and then force it back there, again and again.
Macdonald has done just that, and the result is a deeply human work shot through, like cloth of gold, with intelligence and compassion – an exemplar of the mysterious alchemy by which suffering can be transmuted into beauty. I will be surprised if a better book than H is for Hawk is published this year.
Melissa Harrison is author of ‘Clay’ (Bloomsbury)