My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The maxim "do not judge a book by its cover" does not apply to Helen MacDonald's H is For Hawk.
Indeed, it was the beautifully illustrated front cover that first drew me to the book several months ago: the thick, black lines tracing the hawk, the brown hues colouring the print, the bird's piercing gaze.
The allure and details of the front cover accurately reflect the book itself, which contains the most mesmerizing and intricate writing I have read so far this year. This is nature writing at its best: from "shotgun-peppered road signs" to a spider "ascending like an intrepid hot-air balloonist to drift and disperse and fall." One cannot forget the revelation of the hawk, which is absolutely arresting:
...amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. 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.In H is for Hawk, Macdonald's traces her journey of taming a goshawk after her father's death. Her relationship with birds has always been complex: as a child, she saw the goshawk as a thing of "death and difficulty," as it was through the bird that she had her "first sight of death." Yet it was also through birdwatching with her father that she learned, "when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient."
Macdonald's reflection of the "madness of grief" truly hits the mark in this memoir. There are lessons she learns, such as:
The world is for ever, though you are only a blink in its course.
The archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten
What the mind does after losing one's father isn't just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with.Yet her goshawk, which she later names 'Mabel,' brings her a "gulping-down champagne sense of joy." The connection between human and hawk is explored in detail, especially as Macdonald recounts the bitter life of T.H. White, author of The Goshawk, in a parallel, gradually unfolding structure throughout the book. Writing about White, Macdonald reveals how “White saw that the hawk was himself, a bird that was a 'youth who had been maddened by every kind of clumsiness, privation, and persecution." It is therefore fitting that she, too, sees the hawk as "everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” Indeed, "the world with the hawk in it was insulated from harm, and in that world I was exactly aware of all the edges of my skin." Such lines betray Macdonald's throbbing grief, her bruised heart, and her desire for recovery through taming the hawk.
Macdonald's detailed account of training her hawk ties into her reflection on her own grief. While she stresses the importance of being "invisible" when first being acquainted with a hawk, she also notes that invisibility is "a habit you can fall into."
And it doesn’t serve you well in life. Believe me it doesn’t. Not with people and loves and hearts and homes and work. But for the first few days with a new hawk, making yourself disappear is the greatest skill in the world.
At the same time, however, there is a palpable sense of healing that emerges near the end of the book, as the hawk's taming becomes complete and the tone of Macdonald's writing grows warmer. She goes from "jobless, homeless" to wondering "if home can be anywhere, just as the wild can be at its fiercest in a run of suburban back-lots." By the end, the "shape" of her grief has turned into something that was "simply love."
In this memoir, we learn as much as we do about hawks as we do about Helen - who, in the process of taming her hawk, also tames herself, swaps society for wilderness, recognizes the depth of her grief and experiences the soaring joy of watching her hawk fly. The memoir exposes not only the weight of her staggering struggles, but also her unflinching patience and persistence. H is for Hawk, and H is for Helen, too.
You can reconcile the wild. You can bring it home with you.
There is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our views of the world.
There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.
Hands are for other humans to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.
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