Helen Macdonald has written a memoir of that depressing period after one comes out of shock from the loss of a father, when the feeling can be so overwhelming as to drive one into depression. Her chosen therapy was to set about training a goshawk. She had the background and experience of falconry but taking this task on was to halt her academic career, oblige her to leave her university accommodation, and more or less run out of money. H is for Hawk is the beautifully written account of her many trials and tribulations and ultimate success which carried off the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.
Running in parallel with her own story, she compares and contrasts that of T H White, author, among many books, of The Goshawk which Macdonald read as a very young girl. White too felt he was overburdened by circumstances and felt that training a goshawk would somehow prove to be the answer. However, White’s problems included ‘his homosexuality, his unhappiness, his sense of feeling unreal, his sadism, all of it; all his confusions and fears.’ Clearly there are parallels rather more than similarities and White’s story runs like a darker thread through Macdonald’s book. She makes it clear, however, that:
The book you are reading is my story. It is not a biography of Terence Hanbury White. But White is a part of my story all the same. I have to write about him 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 who was suspicious, morose, determined to despair. A man whose life disturbed me. But a man, too, who loved nature, who found it surprising, bewitching and endlessly novel. ‘A magpie flies like a frying pan!’ he could write, with the joy of discovering something new in the world. And it is that joy, that childish delight in the lives of creatures other than man, that I love most in White.
In telling her story, Macdonald reveals herself every bit as joyful and more than equal to tell it in ways that remind one of that earlier famous account of living with otters. However, the sheer scope of her use of language and the compelling narrative had me comparing her with another East Anglian writer, W G Sebald – which, from me, is praise indeed.
Her own present-day story also moves in and out of powerful recollections of her father from whom she acquired her love of nature and passion for falconry. Being a professional press photographer he had that eye for detail and used his camera to describe and depict his subjects. Macdonald has his eye but she is also an immensely rich writer, depicting what she sees with such vividness that the images remain after the words have gone. She has that rare gift of using what registers first as an unusual word or phrase and then becomes the only word one could possibly use.
In the half-light through the drawn curtains she sits on her perch, relaxed, hooded, and extraordinary. Formidable talons, wicked, curved black beak, sleek, café-au-lait front streaked thickly with cocoa-coloured teardrops, looking for all the world like some cappuccino samurai. ‘Hello hawk,’ I whisper, and at the sound she draws her feathers tight in alarm. ‘Hush,’ I tell myself, and the hawk. Hush. Then I put on my falconer’s glove, step forward and take her on my fist, untying the falconer’s knot that secures her leash to the perch.
As ever, this blog does not like to say too much about the ‘plot’, even of non-fiction, so, apart from further illustration of the quality of Macdonald’s writing, I shall not further anticipate the story. Macdonald tends to keep the reader on edge with short, sometimes even one word, sentences; a gift I envy! She finds unexpected words to create her similes: ‘as the light deepens and the late swifts ascend to bury themselves in the sky’; not where things are usually buried but all the more poetic and vivid for that reason. And talking of reasons; while I simply could not conceive of taking up falconry or hunting with a hawk, the fact is that Macdonald has held me gripped with her description and the twists, turns, disappointments and joys of her experience. She richly deserved her Samuel Johnson prize.
H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald; London: Vintage Books, 2014