As the year opens up into Spring, days grow longer and brighter and I travel the same path of memories I have since 2006, the year my father died. In the middle of the world’s great blooming, something in me dies over and over. It’s possible that reading H is for Hawk in the midst of this yearly journey was not a good idea, or maybe it was the best idea. It’s hard to say, because with grief, it’s always hard to know what’s best.
Helen Macdonald’s intensely unique memoir has garnered rave reviews, just Google and you will find that every major review publication is falling over itself to discuss the book that won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and is the Costa Book of the Year. I am no different, I want to urge you to read the book as well, you wouldn’t be reading this otherwise.
Macdonald’s memoir takes us through the months after her beloved father’s sudden death. There are moments in the book that are so profoundly sad and true for a half-orphaned child, whose father was taken before his time, that I found tears streaming down my face almost hourly as I read. Macdonald is able to put grief into words in ways I scarcely imagined possible; my own father’s death brings up such complicated emotions I often have trouble speaking coherently about it. But Macdonald is precise:
Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.
Most reviews I’ve read focus on the novelty of Macdonald’s coping mechanism, training a goshawk, and indeed, the story is mesmerizing. Macdonald has a lifetime of experience with hawking, but her training with Mabel (the goshawk) is different, because it is colored with grief. Still, the story is dazzling, in its shades of wildness and the depths of Macdonald’s feeling for the hawk, for the loss she feels, for the land she traverses with Mabel. Her descriptions of land and beast are gorgeous, such as the moment she sees Mabel for the first time:
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.
Yet, for me, the book’s real strength was its challenging and sometimes frustrating narrative style. Macdonald’s love for hawking grew at a young age and she spent the years many girls spend in love with horses, obsessed with birds. She pored over books about falconry, and the work of T.H. White stood out to her. She loved The Sword and the Stone, but was equal parts in love with and outraged by White’s account of his own disastrous experience training a goshawk.
Macdonald’s nature as a historian and researcher weaves a complicated pattern into her memoir; interspersed with her own story is an acutely researched account of White’s life and his experience with the goshawk he most often called “Gos” (though we learn White had several other names for him). Macdonald’s feelings about White’s times with Gos are fraught with frustration and love, she sees that he abused the bird, if unintentionally and the story of White’s experience in no way parallels her time with Mabel.
In fact, Macdonald’s experience training Mabel is a stark contrast for White’s, her patience evokes trust and a kind of wild love from her bird, while White fails miserably. I admit to being disturbed by Macdonald’s portrayal of White. At first I was very sympathetic, White came from a terribly abusive home and fought against his sadomasochistic urges his whole life, with the additional stress of being a closeted homosexual in the 1930s. White’s story is so deeply tragic it’s difficult not to feel sorry for him, until Macdonald begins delivering the story of Gos, and then my heart hardened. The way he treated the bird is so cruel and wrought with the signs of abuse I could hardly read on.
I was frustrated by Macdonald’s inclusion of White’s story, and the fact that she made it so intimately interwoven with her own, for about half the book. Then, somewhere in the second third of the book, it fell into place. It didn’t matter if I liked White or not, something about his life and her experience with his work meant something to her, something so deeply important that I payed attention in a different way. I’m reminded of the things I focused on, even obsessed over, after my father died and I understand. It makes sense in respect of the story, but its inclusion in the memoir makes sense to me on a deeper level now that I’m finished with the book.
I’d rather not say more about this, or the result of Macdonald’s training with Mabel. I’ll leave you to find out on your own. Know that this is a challenging memoir. Macdonald shifts tenses and perspectives without warning. It’s jarring at first, but meaningful. Those experienced with grief and isolation will recognize that Macdonald has skillfully reproduced the ways in which a grief-stricken mind melts from one thing into another with confusing ease.
This isn’t a book for a pleasant afternoon, nor would I recommend reading it over a prolonged period of time. I think to get the most of out of it, give yourself a week with it, or maybe three or four days. Usually I like to read non-fiction slowly, but I found with this I wanted to keep moving. Read this book knowing that it’s bound to make you feel things a bit more deeply than perhaps you’d like and that you’re almost certainly going to think training a hawk might be good for you at least once.
Allison Carr Waechter is a writer, a teacher and a perpetual student. She’s on Spring Break this week, tweet at her.